Project Icarus: MIT, Asteroids, Movies, and Weather Balloons

November 7th, 2013

Artist rendering of asteroid

Image: ESA/Hubble

Aeronautics and astronautics study at MIT has a long history. In 1914, MIT introduced the nation’s first aeronautical engineering course. An undergraduate program followed about a decade later, and by 1939 the Department of Aeronautics was formed. The Institute played a key role in the Apollo program, and alumnus Buzz Aldrin PhD ’63 became the second man to walk on the moon.

In 1967, professor Paul Sandorff ’39 presented a novel problem to his advanced space systems engineering class. Icarus, a mile-wide asteroid, was on course to pass close to Earth in 1968. The slightest change in its orbit could put it on a collision course with Earth. Calling the project “Mission to Icarus,” Sandorff challenged his students to save the world from destruction.

Full story: MIT saves the world.

“Teaching at the End of the World”
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Project Icarus didn’t end with Professor Sandorff’s classroom experiment:

Project Icarus on the big screen

Project Icarus served as inspiration for the 1979 sci-fi disaster film Meteor, about an asteroid hurtling toward Earth. Starring Sean Connery and Natalie Wood, the movie was a box office flop — although it did garner an Oscar nomination for “Best Sound.”

Metor at IMDB.

MIT Tech article about Meteor.

The second Project Icarus

In 2009, MIT students Justin Lee ’08, SM ’11, Oliver Yeh ’10, and Eric Newton SM ’12 launched a digital camera into the stratosphere using a weather balloon and Styrofoam cooler. For about $150, the trio captured photographs from 18 miles above the Earth. This second Project Icarus drew national attention not for its spectacular photos, but for taking high-quality aerial photos on such a shoestring budget.

Project Icarus website (includes photos and video)

Article about the project at Wired.com

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