Calling all space enthusiasts who have ever dreamed of exploring the outer reaches: a space program with a populist bent is helping make the dream a reality—with the help of Ping-Pong balls.
JP Aerospace, an independent, volunteer-run space program that has been developing, building, and flying low-cost aerospace systems for the past 31 years, is on a mission to carry student projects and scientific experiments to the edge of space. The only requirement: the project must fit within the snug confines of a Ping-Pong ball capsule. Unlike in the new phenomenon of space tourism, the ball's voyage is completely free.
Nicknamed “PongSats,” short for “Ping-Pong Satellites,” the balls were chosen as suitable space vessels for their size, weight, and universality. Since the first mission 10 years ago, which carried 20 balls, JP Aerospace has launched 6,440 of these miniature orbs. With the help of a Kickstarter campaign, the program is raising funds for the voyage of 1,000 more capsules on September 22. “We wanted to invent a space program that everyone could be a part of,” says founder John Powell. “With PongSats, we’re essentially taking 1,000 astronauts to space with us.”
Everyone from university professors to kindergarteners has submitted projects, hailing from all over the globe, including Japan, New Zealand, Belgium, Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey. Past contents of the Ping-Pong balls include miniature marshmallows (which puff up and freeze-dry in space), plant seeds (to determine if the journey will affect their growth), gummy bears (which lose their air bubbles), to computer systems. Often the PongSats double as art projects, dressed in intricate calligraphy or decorated with cartoons.
Each voyage begins in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. The balls are secured on the shelves of a foam and carbon fiber units called High Racks. Then, a weather ballon lifts the racks into the atmosphere as it slowly expands in diameter from 10 feet at the ground to 60 at its peak. When the balloon pops, usually at around 100,000 feet, the High Racks make their descent back to Earth with the help of a parachute. Upon landing, tracking systems email JP Aerospace the location. Each capsule is collected and sent back to the owner with a DVD of the journey, a data sheet from the flight including the altitude and temperature, and a certificate.
The central goal behind PongSats is to make space travel accessible to students of all ages. “It’s changing the whole nature of how students see space," Powell says. "Space has become something formed from what they see on television. It’s not something they can directly relate to. PongSats makes space something they can do, something tangible. It’s a product they can hold in their own hands.”
Though the next flight is slated for September, JP Aerospace sends trips four times a year. Anybody interested in hitching a free ride for their personalized ping-pong ball to the edge of space can book a seat by sending an email to jpowell[at]jpaerospace[dot]com.