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How Engineers Got a Vinyl Record to Play in the Stratosphere

Fittingly, it took notes from Carl Sagan

smithsonian.com

When Voyager I was launched in 1977, it contained a golden record imprinted with images and sounds showcasing life on Earth. Designed in part by Carl Sagan, the record contained instructions for any extraterrestrials who might encounter the probe at some point to build a record player to listen to it, but the record itself did not play during Voyager's journey. But last month in the skies above rural Idaho, a record actually played in the edge of space for the first time. On July 2, a record and turntable commissioned by musician Jack White’s Third Man Records was carried up to the stratosphere in a high altitude balloon and successfully played a song sampling Carl Sagan himself before returning back to Earth.

Getting a vinyl record to play in the stratosphere took some serious engineering. In order to get the record to accurately play a song in a near-vacuum, engineers working on the Icarus Craft first had to make sure that the record could actually play. While audiophiles may praise vinyl for its sound quality, Icarus designer Kevin Carrico knew that the extreme environmental conditions found at the edge space would not be kind to the record, The Guardian reports.

“As you rise higher and higher into the thinning atmosphere, temperature and increasing vacuum (lack of air) can cause issues,” Carrico says in a statement. “Vinyl has a rather low melting point (160°F), and without air to keep things cool, you could wind-up with a lump of melted plastic on your hands if a record is exposed to the sun for too long.”

icarus
The Icarus craft is essentially a heavy-duty, custom-made turntable. (Third Man Records)

In order to keep the record playing as the craft rose, Carrico had to figure out how to keep the grooves from warping. Without air to mediate temperature, the vinyl record would get very hot when exposed to direct sunlight and very cold when in any shade, which would cause it to continually expand and contract during its brief flight. To mediate this stress, Carrico designed the turntable to act as a heat sink that would help maintain the record at a relatively even temperature to keep it from warping. To make sure the tiny grooves on the record maintained their shape throughout the journey, Carrico took a page out of the Voyager record’s book by reinforcing it with gold plating, Jon Fingas writes for Engadget.

In addition to weathering the stratosphere’s stresses, Carrico had to make sure that the record would actually play during the entire 80-minute voyage. To protect the record, which played composer John Boswell’s Carl Sagan-inspired “A Glorious Dawn” on loop, Carrico installed a computer that would detect turbulence and stop the record if the wind got too rough, Fingas reports. Once the balloon reached the upper limits of the atmosphere and burst, that same computer automatically lifted the turntable’s tone arm during its descent via parachute back to Earth. When the Icarus recovery team found the craft in a vineyard two miles from the launch site near Marsing, Idaho, the record was still spinning.

Icarus record
The record played on board the Icarus craft was gold-plated to keep the vinyl from warping in the stratosphere's extreme conditions. (Third Man Records)

For Carrico, designing equipment to withstand the rigors of space is something of a family affair. As a NASA physicist, Carrico’s father John helped design the Viking probes that first explored Mars in the late 1970s. Meanwhile, Carrico’s brothers John and Tim both work in the field, as an astrophysicist and in aerospace analytics, respectively, Third Man Records writes in a statement. During the three years Carrico worked on designing, building, and testing components for the Icarus craft, his family pitched in to lend their expertise to the project as well.

“Combining our creative impulses with those of discovery and science is our passion, and even on the scale that we are working with here, it was exhilarating to decide to do something that hasn't been done before and to work towards its completion,” Jack White said in a statement. “And, it brings us great fulfillment to pay tribute to the incredible scientist and dreamer that Carl Sagan was. We hope that in meeting our goal we inspire others to dream big and start their own missions, whatever they may be.”

landing
The record returned to Earth, intact and still spinning on its turntable. (Third Man Records)
About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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