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Rubber chicken travels to space

September 7, 2012

Thirty-five years ago Wednesday, something extraordinary in the course of human history occurred.
A tiny, nondescript—but powerful—space-faring craft, called Voyager, took to the stars, loaded with greetings, images, music, and art gathered from across the planet Earth and imprinted on an old-fashioned record.

Its mission was simple—to say hello to anyone, anything, that might be listening.

Today, Voyager is still traveling and that “Golden Record” of information is travelling with it, still headed out and away, toward the edge of the solar system. If it gets there, something scientists noted Wednesday was likely in the next several years, it will be the first time humanity has traveled beyond its mother star.

But there’s a problem with the whole idea, noble as it is—at least according to some local high school students.

The music on Voyager is so terribly, terribly, outdated, just “so seventies.”

So they are doing something about it.

All it has taken is seven years of hard, exacting work, endless hours of volunteer teaching by a former NASA engineer—and a rubber chicken called Camilla.

On Wednesday (Sept. 5), Bishop Union High School’s Earth to Sky Calculus club spun through the school’s sunlit walkways in a frenzy of activity.

“Where’s the chicken? Is the chicken secured?”

“I got the chicken, she’s ready to go.”

“Ok, the light is green, let’s go.”

“One, two, three, lift off!”

With a whoosh and a swirl, a giant latex weather balloon rose slowly into the bright blue sky above Bishop Union High School, headed for the stratosphere 25 miles above the Earth.

Its burden was a most unusual one—Camilla, the official mascot of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, wearing a hand-knit flight outfit and listening to a golden iPod loaded with the original contents of the Golden Record carried by Voyager­—and, a collection of modern songs and even some original vocals sung by the Bishop High students.

They are students of Dr. Tony Phillips, a NASA science writer and former NASA heliophysicist who’s been voluntarily teaching them advanced mathematics, calculus, and physics on their lunch hour—and before and after classes in many cases—since many of them were in fifth grade. Members of the club include Anna Herbst, Ginger Perez, Sam Johnson, Michael White, Amelia Koske-Phillips, Jordan Herbst, Olivia Grah, Rachel Molina, Bronwyn Stephanson, Logan Stephanson, Melodie Aust and Caitlyn Vargas.

The club has garnered attention from national and international media for their experiments with weather balloon launches into the stratosphere.

They have already sent sunflower seeds to space, planting them on their return to see if the radiation in space will affect them. They’ve sent insects, alive, in vials, tucked deep into a worn and well-used Kmart lunch box protected from hard landings by a handmade PVC framework.

Even some scientists from places far beyond Bishop are known to wait for the unique data the club’s weather balloon experiments can deliver, and the balloons’ attached GoPro cameras have already sent back astonishing pictures of the white-capped Sierra and the deep black of the Owens Gorge, shining like a gemstone against the black sky

They have waited dozens of times for their balloon to explode from the pressure and slowly, slowly, drift back to ground, landing most often somewhere in the White Mountains or the Inyo Mountains or even near Death Valley and in Nevada—wherever the prevailing winds take it.

In the next few months, they hope to photograph a thunderstorm from the inside, chasing the “sprites and elves”—a meteorological phenomenon that accompanies storms.

They also want to see what it looks like inside of the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, at close range, just for the sheer beauty of what they think they will see. It’s one of the things they have worked toward and in 2013, they aim to be one of the first payloads on a commercial satellite that can deliver that dream.

They’ve worked hard and long and at least one of them, Molina, will graduate this year, though some are still in middle school. They are headed to MIT and Stanford and Yale and just about anywhere else they chose to go, aiming, in their own ways, for the stars here on earth.

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