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Rubber chicken flies into solar radiation storm
Camilla in the space - the mascot of the NASA Solar Dynamic
Last month, when the sun unleashed the most intense radiation storm since 2003, peppering satellites with charged particles and igniting strong auroras around both poles, a group of high school students in Bishop, California, knew just what to do. They launched a rubber chicken.
The students inflated a helium balloon and used it to send the fowl, named "Camilla," to an altitude of 120,000 ft where she was exposed to high-energy solar protons at point blank range.
"We equipped Camilla with sensors to measure the radiation," says Sam Johnson (age 16) of Bishop Union High School's Earth to Sky student group1. "At the apex of our flight, the payload was above 99% of Earth's atmosphere."
Launching a rubber chicken into a solar storm might sound strange, but the students had good reason: They're doing an astrobiology project.
"Later this year, we plan to launch a species of microbes to find out if they can live at the edge of space," explains team member Rachel Molina (age 17). "This was a reconnaissance flight."
Many space enthusiasts are already familiar with Camilla. She's the mascot of NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. With help from her keeper, Romeo Durscher of Stanford University, Camilla corresponds with more than 20,000 followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, filling them in on the latest results from NASA's heliophysics missions.
"Camilla's trip to the stratosphere gave us a chance to talk to thousands of people about the radiation storm," says Durscher.
On the outside of her space suit (knitted by Cynthia Coer Butcher from Blue Springs, Missouri), Camilla wore a pair of radiation badges, the same kind medical technicians and nuclear workers wear to assess their dosages.
Camilla actually flew twice--once on March 3rd before the radiation storm and again on March 10th while the storm was in full swing. This would give the students a basis for comparison.