Last month, in the midst of the most intense solar radiation storm since 2003, a rubber chicken named Camilla reached heights unknown to her breed after high school students from Bishop, California, launched her to an altitude of 120,000 feet. Members of Bishop Union High School’s Earth to Sky student group had equipped Camilla with sensors to measure radiation as part of an astrobiology project. The March “reconaissance mission” will be followed by one in which the students launch a species of microbes to learn whether they can live “at the edge of space.”
Here is Camilla at 119,000 feet, minus 83 degrees fahrenheit and air pressures similar to to that on Mars.
Camilla is the mascot of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. For her March mission, her space suit was outfitted with radiation badges like those worn by medical technicians and nuclear workers to assess damage. The students sent her up (via helium balloon) twice, on March 3rd to assess conditions prior to the radiation storm and on March 10th, when the storm was going on. Here’s the details of her mission via NASA:
During the two and a half hour flight, Camilla spent approximately 90 minutes in the stratosphere where temperatures (-40 to -60 C) and air pressures (1% sea level) are akin to those on the planet Mars. The balloon popped, as planned, at an altitude of about 40 km and Camilla parachuted safely back to Earth. The entire payload was recovered intact from a landing site in the Inyo Mountains.
The payload, a modified department store lunchbox, carried four cameras, a cryogenic thermometer, and two GPS trackers. Seven insects and two dozen sunflower seeds also rode along to test their response to near-space travel. The seeds were a variety known to gardeners as “Sunspot” (Helianthus annuus).
On March 10th, Camilla flew right into “one of the strongest proton storms in years,” when satellites orbiting the earth were sending out proton counts ~30,000 times normal. Throughout the first two weeks of March, sunspot AR1429 unleashed more than 50 solar flares. NASA says that, when the storm reach its zenith, “charged particles hitting Earth’s upper atmosphere deposited enough heat in only three days to power every residence in New York City for two years.”
Camilla’s badges have been sent to a lab for analysis. Fifth grade assistants to the high school team are planting the sunflower seeds to see if, after being radiated, they differ from seeds on earth. The seven insects did not survive the voyage and their corpses are being affixed to a “black ‘Foamboard of Death,’ a rare collection of bugs that have been to the edge of space.”
Camilla’s mission is a reminder of how it’s possible to teach students about science in innovative ways and, even more, to show kids how studying science really can be out of this world.
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