Teddy-nauts 30km above the Earth
By Helen Burchell
Some bears are born great, some bears achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them... as Shakespeare might possibly have said, had he ever met Cambridge's cuddliest cosmonauts.
Ah, kids... they grow up so quickly these days, don't they? We used to take our teddy bears to bed to cuddle, but not so a group of budding scientists at Parkside and Coleridge Community Colleges. They've been tying their cuddly critters to a helium balloon and launching them into space!
These intrepid teddies had been in training for six months before atmospheric conditions were deemed perfect for the launch of the UK's least-publicised space mission. Four bears, a box laden with more hi-tech equipment than Bear Force One, and the mother of all helium balloons - the bear NASA-sities for take-off.
Sparks Club members & Steve Hinshelwood
What began as a joint project between students from Cambridge University's Spaceflight Club and pupils from Parkside and Coleridge Community Colleges' after-hours science club - Sparks - has captured the imagination of the nation.
Spaceflight's aim is to find cheap and easy ways to send payloads into space, while running an active outreach programme that encourages kids to find the fun in Physics and realise that science can be scintillating.
Led by one of Parkside's science teachers, Steve Hinshelwood, pupils at the Sparks Club began working with Spaceflight on the means, method (and possible madness) of launching some teddy bears into space, and on various ways to monitor the effects of high altitudes on their furry friends.
So, there IS method to this apparent madness... while Spaceflight works at developing low cost technology to improve access to high altitudes for scientific research, Sparks pupils are learning about insulation, convection, conduction and radiation.
How cold are we now?
The pupils decided themselves that they wanted to build protective spacesuits for the bears and monitor what went on inside them once the teddies were exposed to the ravages of Near Space. The resulting spacesuits were made from a variety of 'protective' materials, including foil used to warm up marathon runners, ordinary tin foil, fruit juice bottles, spangly tights and foam. And the helmets were fashioned from the bottoms of small bottles of mineral water. Rather them than me!
The teddy bear-laden payload was launched from Churchill College in Cambridge on Monday 1st December - it hardly attracted the crowds of Cape Canaveral due largely to the fact that no one on the team really expected the atmospheric conditions to be suitable until March 2009. But, suddenly, there they were, faced with the perfect day for launching, and luckily, all four intrepid teds were fit, healthy and raring to go.
A massive helium balloon, described by 12-year-old Megan, one of the Sparks Club pupils, as "like being smothered by a giant dumpling" was connected to a box containing a laptop, computer, GPS and radio equipment - and the four teddy-nauts were somewhat unceremoniously strapped on.
Ipswich here we come...
The balloon ascended to an incredible 30km above the Earth - part of the atmosphere known as Near Space (the clue's in the name). During the two hour, nine minute flight, cameras caught the action and Spaceflight students tracked the payload via GPS.
You can see photographs of the bears in Near Space in this great gallery. All photographs are provided courtesy of Cambridge University's Spaceflight Club:
Eventually, all the teddies landed safely, brought back down to Earth at the end of a parachute, landing 50 miles away, just north of a little-known planet called 'Ipswich'.
In space no one can see your fur freeze
On a chilly evening, three days after the launch, some of the science club members gather in the lobby at Parkside Community College proudly showing off three of the intrepid teddy bears, ready to be filmed live for a local news channel. The fourth bear is recovering from his space ordeal at Coleridge Community College - the two schools are affiliated under the banner Parkside Federation.
Sam, William and Ikeda with teddy-nauts
Their teacher, Steve Hinshelwood, is beaming. Clearly proud of their efforts, I ask whether he was expecting this media furore when the children, and members of Cambridge University's Spaceflight Club, began working on this project in July 2008.
"I knew it would be big," he says. "But none of us expected this.
"I just wanted to do something that would make the students realise how exciting science can be. With the schools' drama and music clubs, there's always something to show for the work the children put in after hours - a play or a performance. It's not really the same with a science club."
Well, Steve - it is now! This incredible, astronomical story has captured the imagination of the nation and pretty much every tabloid and broadsheet has been running the story, not to mention network television news.
The pupils show me their bears and explain why they chose the various materials to build the bears' suits. One bear has been named MAT - the initials of the three pupils who designed his suit - Megan, Aiyana and Thea. Sadly for MAT, his suit didn't provide as much protection against the elements as the others...
Megan, Thea and Aiyana with MAT
"There's a temperature probe inside each of the four teddy bears' spacesuits," explains Steve Hinshelwood, "so we could look at how the temperature changed as they went up in the atmosphere - but the different teddy bears were subjected to cold, or not so cold, depending on how well the students had built the spacesuits.
"The unluckiest teddy (MAT) - the coldest teddy - ended up at minus 53 degrees Celsius - one or two of the others fared a little better at minus 35."
But, as Megan insists: "MAT's really cool - he looks cooler than any of the other bears, don't you think?" I think for a moment. I think he looks cold... VERY cold!
This project has definitely given the pupils at the science club a massive boost. It's introduced them to aspects of science not covered by the National Curriculum - especially not for children of 11, 12 and 13 years of age - and it's made some of them think about their future in a completely different light.
"I used to want to be a doctor," says Ikeda. "But now I think I'd rather be an astronaut."
Another pupil looks more doubtful. As she eyes up the bears, still dangling from the parachute or impaled in a rather undignified manner on the communications box, she tells me quietly... "Actually, I think it all looks a little bit like too much hard work."
You can listen to the full interview with Steve Hinshelwood from Parkside Federation by clicking on the link below:
And we've got a great selection of photographs of the teddy-nauts, courtesy of Cambridge University's Spaceflight Club:
last updated: 05/12/2008 at 17:05
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