Take a Ride Into Space With NASA’s Rubber Chicken

I’ve never told anyone this before, but when I was a kid, I always wanted a rubber chicken. Many of the comedic heroes of my childhood got to play with them — the Three Stooges, for example, and Soupy Sales (I’m dating myself and revealing my lowbrow side all at once here). It’s not like they were all that hard to find, even before the Internet.

I also had a slightly more elevated set of interests, including an endless fascination with the space program. I was too young to be aware of Sputnik, but I watched as Alan Shepard blasted off to become the first American in space in 1961, and as the first close-up photos of Jupiter began to stream in from Pioneer 10 a little over a decade later.

Little did I suspect that these two childhood obsessions would one day cross paths. But last month, against all odds, it happened: a team of investigators sent a rubber chicken named Camilla to an altitude of 120,000 feet, not once, but twice, in an historic scientific experiment that will add nothing whatever to humankind’s understanding of the mysterious workings of the universe. It wasn’t rocket science. It wasn’t especially funny, either (although the video here is really fun).

But it was really important anyway, seriously, and here’s why. The story begins with a satellite called the Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO. It’s up in orbit monitoring solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which can disrupt communications and even threaten the power grid here on Earth. Data from SDO feeds into a little-known division of the National Weather Service called the Space Weather Prediction Center, which warns people when these solar eruptions happen.

NASA isn’t just a science organization, though: it also has an educational mission, and to engage students in the science SDO does, mission scientist Tony Phillips created a mission mascot, Camilla Corona, with her own Twitter feed. Under Phillips’ mentorship, a group of high school and middle school students in Bishop, Calif., has gone beyond just following the chicken: they’ve put together a citizen science team called Earth to Sky.

It’s that team that launched Camilla, not on a rocket but dangling from a helium balloon. She wore a hand-knitted sweater, with two radiation badges attached, and she went up twice — first, when the Sun was relatively quiet, and then, a week later, during a radiation storm picked up by the Solar Dynamics Observer. The idea was to see how the radiation environment changed; it also set the stage for an upcoming experiment where the kids will send bacteria into space, to see how dangerous the radiation is to living things. (Somehow, the team didn’t consider Camilla’s own reaction to be definitive, but they did send seven cockroaches and two dozen sunflower seeds aloft as well, in a modified lunchbox).

The experiment won’t tell biologists or astrobiologists anything they don’t already know from more sophisticated experiments, but that’s not the point. It’s gotten a group of kids entirely captivated by science — not just reading about it, but actually doing it, and getting plenty of recognition to boot.

And that’s kind of a big deal.