Rubber chicken launched into massive solar storm

It’s been known for some time that solar storms represent a danger to the health of astronauts. But what about rubber chickens?

Last month, when the sun unleashed the most intense radiation storm since 2003, a group of high school students in Bishop, California, wanted to find out.

They inflated a helium balloon and used it to send the chicken, named Camilla, up 120,000 feet to expose her to high-energy solar protons at point-blank range.

“We equipped Camilla 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.”

Camilla’s trip was intended as a reconaissance flight in preparation for an astrobiology project loooking at whether microbes can live at the edge of space. She carried a modified department store lunchbox, containing four cameras, a cryogenic thermometer and two GPS trackers.

The payload also included seven insects and two dozen sunflower seeds of a variety known as “Sunspot” (Helianthus annuus).

Camilla actually flew twice – once on March 3, just before the radiation storm, and again on March 10 while the storm was in full swing – to give the students a basis for comparison.

On the outside of her space suit, she wore a pair of radiation badges like those worn by medical technicians and nuclear workers to assess their dosages.

On March 10, Camilla 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. The payload was later recovered from a landing site near Deep Springs, California.

The fifth graders 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 sort of Hall of Fame for bugs that have been to the edge of space.