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Teens send toy above the clouds

Lego Man rises above the clouds in a time-lapse video.




It's very cool that two 17-year-old Canadians sent a flag-toting Lego figurine into the sky on a weather balloon, as part of a weekend project that cost less than $500. It's cooler still that they got back some fantastic video of the toy silhouetted against the backdrop of a curving Earth beneath a black sky. But let's not call it putting a "Lego man in space." Even though the balloon ascended to around 80,000 feet, that's only a quarter of the way to the boundary of outer space.

That distinction doesn't take anything away from the feat that Toronto teens Mathew Ho and Asad Muhammad pulled off this month: The high-school students worked during four months' worth of free Saturdays to put together their balloon-borne experimental package, including four cameras, a cell phone with a GPS app, a home-sewn parachute and a Lego "minifig" holding a Canadian flag.


When the wind conditions were right, as determined by a website that calculates balloon trajectories, the teens headed out to a soccer  field in Newmarket and sent their rig up on an $85 weather balloon. The data suggest that the balloon rose to somewhere around 80,000 feet over the course of 65 minutes, then blew apart. The Lego man and the cameras came back down to Earth, buoyed by the parachute and protected within a plastic-foam box during the half-hour descent. Eventually, the cell phone guided the kids to a field about 75 miles away from the launch point.

The cameras recorded two videos and 1,500 photos, documenting the Lego man's amazing trip up through the clouds. "We never knew it would be this good," Ho told the Toronto Star.

But it got even better: After the Star published the teens' story, they were swamped with media attention. Canon, the company that made the cameras used on the Lego man's trip, said it would give Ho and Muhammad top-of-the-line cameras so they could continue their "creativity and inspiration." Lego sent its congratulations. A Toronto couple offered to reimburse the kids for their costs. Reports about the feat filtered out to The Guardian, the Daily Mail, the Huffington Post and elsewhere. The YouTube video has been viewed more than 600,000 times, and there's even a Facebook fan page.

Most of the reports refer to the Lego man as being "in space" — which makes for a nice headline but is unfortunately wrong. The issue may not seem like a biggie, but over the past year there have been all sorts of things sent up on balloons to stratospheric heights — including a chair, an iPad (sans parachute), a vibrator and iPhones galore. Heck, a 7-year-old and his dad sent up an iPhone a couple of years ago, and the Toronto teens said they took their inspiration from the MIT students who kicked off the craze with a $150 balloon mission in 2009.

This is all great, but it could give folks the impression that sending things into space is so easy a kid can do it — so why are we spending millions or billions of dollars to put things into orbit?

Lofting payloads on suborbital trips beyond the internationally accepted boundary of outer space — 100 kilometers or 62 miles or more than 328,000 feet in altitude — is devilishly hard. Just ask Virgin Galactic. or XCOR Aerospace, or Blue Origin, or Armadillo Aerospace, or Masten Space Systems, or all the other ventures that are trying to open the suborbital frontier.

Putting payloads in orbit is much, much harder. Just ask SpaceX, which burned through three launches and millions of dollars before achieving its first success.

Ho and Muhammad haven't reached those heights ... yet. But someday, they may well be putting real men and women into space. The teens are off to a good start, and they deserve all the accolades they're receiving this week for their near-space adventure.

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Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.