Last month, for my day job, I was writing about helium. Helium is the second most abundant element in the Universe (after hydrogen) and the lightest of the noble gases (which point blank refuse to react with almost everything). Helium is produced by radioactive decay, deep in the Earth, but it’s so light that it filters up to the surface, rises through the atmosphere, and escapes into space. Along the way it can get caught up in some geological features, and most of the helium we use is a by-product of natural gas extraction. It has a surprising number of uses, beyond filling balloons and giving people squeaky voices, and gets used a lot for chilling really cool (-268.9 °C/4.22 K) science experiments.
I was writing about helium in its chilling capacity mostly, but whilst I was doing my research I came across plenty of stories of one of its other abilities – lifting things to the edge of space. Well, not really to the edge of space, just quite high in the stratosphere. A toy balloon will burst at an altitude of about 10 km; weather balloons can get to 30 km. It might not be outer space, but you can get some pretty cool pics from up there, and people do.
What I love about this is that kids have been sending things ‘into space’ on helium balloons (makes for an interesting science project!), and people who are allegedly more grown up have been sending some daft things, too.
My favourite story is of two intrepid bears, called MAT and KMS, who became the world’s first teddynauts in 2008. Whisked from a shelf in Mothercare and kitted out with custom made spacesuits by local school children, the teddynauts were propelled into the space flight annals of fame by a weather balloon made by Cambridge University’s Space Flight science club, enduring temperatures of -35°C and reaching 30,000 metres. After successfully completing their mission to monitor weather conditions above the Earth, the pair parachuted back down and made a soft landing near Ipswich, 50 miles from their launch pad.
In fact, four bears took part in the mission, but it seems as though the other two were never named. History does not record what happened to the bears after their 15 minutes of fame, but I hope they are enjoying a thoroughly cuddly retirement.
In April 2016, another intrepid cuddly toy was launched. Sam the Space Dog reached an altitude of 15.5 miles (25 km) after launching from the Midland Hotel as the climax of a project by Morecambe Bay Primary School. Unfortunately, Sam became detached from the helium balloon during his descent, and although the equipment was recovered, Sam was never found 🙁 But a Sam clone made a more successful second flight the following year.
In April 2012, a group of Californian students sent a rubber chicken to an altitude of 120,000 ft as part of a project to test the levels of radiation exposure during a solar storm. At the time, Camilla Corona was already well known among space enthusiasts as a mascot of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), and had more than 20,000 followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. Camilla wore a pair of radiation badges, the same kind medical technicians and nuclear workers wear to assess their exposure, and a space suit knitted by Cynthia Coer Butcher from Blue Springs. She flew twice – once on 3 March before the radiation storm and again on 10 March while the storm was in full swing – to give the students a basis for comparison.
Astrochicken Camilla was attached to the mission’s payload, a modified lunchbox filled with instruments – four cameras, a cryogenic thermometer, and two GPS trackers. Seven insects and two-dozen ‘Sunspot’ sunflower seeds (Helianthus annuus) were also sent up to test their response to near-space travel. The students planted the sunflower seeds to see if they produced flowers that are different than those grown from the seeds that stayed on Earth (but I can’t find a record of the results…). None of the insects survived the mission, so the students pinned their corpses to a black “Foamboard of Death”, a rare collection of bugs that have nearly made it to space.
People seem to love sending edible things into space. In December 2016, ahead of the World Pie Eating Championship, Sheffield-based space enthusiasts attached a camera and tracking equipment a meat and potato pie in Wigan and sent it to the skies on a weather balloon. At the time, it was believed to be the first pie to be launched into the stratosphere, and the alleged aim was to see if its journey up to 30 km changed its molecular structure and made it quicker to eat.
Its flight lasted around two hours, and the pie touched down 38 miles from its launch site, near the Forest of Bowland. It was reported as landing “mostly intact”, but investigations showed its structure was actually different, and it wasn’t eaten due to health and safety concerns.
A Bakewell pudding launched in June 2018 was lost in space. Pupils tracked it to 52,500 ft (16,000 m) over Saxilby, near Lincoln, before contact was lost. They raised about £1,600 for the Guide Dogs for the Blind as part of the experiment, by asking local firms to sponsor them. The Bakewell Pudding is an upper-crust version of the more modern Bakewell Tart, and if you want to make your own (for launch, or lunch), here’s a recipe.
In February 2015, students of Earth to Sky Calculus flew varieties of garden vegetables and flowers (turnips, cherry and beefsteak tomatoes, sweetcorn, green beans, bell peppers, jalapeño peppers, carrots, radishes, pumpkins, broccoli, sunflowers, cosmos, petunias and helichrysum) to the edge of space. The seeds experienced temperatures as low as -63°C and air pressures similar to those on Mars, and received 40 times the dose of cosmic rays they would have on Earth. Identical seeds remained on Earth as control samples, with the intention that the students would grow both sets side-by-side to see whether the trip had affected the viability, colour, size or taste of the plants. (Again, I don’t think they published their results.)
This seedy space mission was partly a fundraising exercise for the students, who flew about 80 packets of seeds and sold them off with control samples for people who wanted to try growing space seeds at home.
Earth to Sky Calculus continues to send exciting things into space, including bananas:
And an orchid:
Speaking of flowers, in 2017 artist azuma makoto sent approximately 100 different kinds up into the stratosphere in three different bouquets, as part of a series of works placing elements of botanical life in naturally impossible situations. They were exposed to temperatures of about -43.9℃, climbing to an average altitude of 95,555 feet during 2 hours of flight. Prior to this, in 2015, the artist had sent a bonsai tree into space.
This is just the tip of the iceberg as far as things that have been sent skywards on helium balloons, and some of them are definitely not safe for work. Far more sensible and informative are NASA’s stratosphere experiments, which are showing that some of Earth’s microbes could potentially hitch a ride on a spacecraft and survive long enough to establish themselves on Mars.