Thursday, February 02, 2012

Canadian Teens Send Lego Man into the Atmosphere, Not Space

The news is buzzing with the story of "the Lego Man in Space" launched by two Canadian teens.  I applaud their efforts in exploration and hope they can learn scientific knowledge first hand from their efforts.  (I also share the fear of many who warn about the risks to air traffic).

However, it is sad to point out the geographical fact that the the Canadian Lego Man never went into space.  The Lego Man did in fact travel far enough to see the curvature of the Earth when it reached 80,000 feet in altitude (15.2 miles or 24.4 kilometers) which is 2.75 times higher than Mount Everest, but that is not space.  The scientifically recognized boundary for where the atmosphere ends and space begins, the Kármán Line, is about 62 miles (100 kilometers) above sea level.

There are several reason why the line was drawn at that height.  At 62 miles the atmosphere, which does not abruptly ends but fades away into space, becomes too thin to support aeronautical traffic going slower than orbital escape velocity while the temperature greatly increases and solar radiation's impact dramatically rises.

The height of the line has prevented balloons from being a means of putting astronauts and satellites into space.  Even Captain Joe Kittinger of Project Excelsior never went into space during his balloon ride to (and jump back down to Earth) 102,800 feet (19.5 miles or 31.300 kilometers).  On the plus side this means Natural Light was not the first beer in space (note that you can the balloon pop, in space there is no air to hear a popping sound).

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