Tuesday, April 24, 2012

My flight to the Edge of Space right into a Solar Storm

In March 2012, 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, Calif., knew just what to do.

They launched me into the solar radiation storm!

The students inflated a helium balloon and used it to send me to an altitude of 120,000 feet where I was exposed to high-energy solar protons at point-blank range.

"We equipped Camilla SDO with sensors to measure the radiation," says Sam Johnson, 16, of Bishop Union High School's Earth to Sky student group. "At the apex of our flight, the payload was above 99 percent 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.

On the outside of my space suit which was knitted by Cynthia Coer Butcher, I wore a pair of radiation badges, the same kind medical technicians and nuclear workers wear to assess their dosages.

I actually flew twice--once on March 3 before the radiation storm and again on March 10 while the storm was in full swing. This would give the students a basis for comparison.

On March 3, during the calm before the storm, the Earth to Sky team assisted by a local class of fifth graders attached me to the payload, inflated the balloon, and released the "stack" (balloon, parachute and payload) into a cloudless blue sky just before local noon."It was a beautiful lift-off," says Amelia Koske-Phillips, 15, the team's payload manager and "launch boss."

During the two-and-a-half-hour flight, I spent approximately 90 minutes in the stratosphere where temperatures (-40 to -76 F) and air pressures (1 percent sea level) are akin to those on the planet Mars. The balloon popped, as planned, at an altitude of about 25 miles and I 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).

One week later, on March 10, the storm was underway, and the students repeated the experiment.

This time I flew into one of the strongest proton storms in years. The source of the radiation was sunspot AR1429, which unleashed more than 50 solar flares during the first two weeks of March. At the peak of the storm, from March 7 to March 10, 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. At the moment of my launch on March 10, Earth-orbiting satellites reported proton counts approximately 30,000 times normal.

"The profile of the second flight was almost identical to the first--perfect for our experiment," adds Johnson. "We recovered the payload from a landing site near Deep Springs, California."

The fifth grade assistants are now planting the sunflower seeds to see if radiated seeds produce flowers any different from seeds that stayed behind on Earth. They're also pinning the corpses of the insects--none survived--to a black "Foamboard of Death," a rare collection of bugs that have been to the edge of space.

Meanwhile, my radiation badges have been sent to a commercial laboratory for analysis....

Big thank you to the kids of Earth to Sky Calculus. 


  1. The weather balloon that I helped launch had a neutron detector, unfortunately it had a software bug at the time and didn't collect any data.

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