Once in a lifetime space connection for students

Bundaberg Amateur Radio Club's Michael Talan with the tracking antenna system.

By Angela Norval

In a first for Bundaberg and a once in a lifetime opportunity for Avoca State School students, kids were able to chat with an astronaut in orbit around earth.

Bundaberg Amateur Radio Club’s (BARC) constructed rotating antennae to track the International Space Station (ISS) so that 12 students could pose questions to Astronaut Colonel Mike Hopkins as the station passed over Bundaberg on Thursday 11 March.

Students made ISS models and took tours via virtual reality headsets before the event.

YouTube clips featuring an introduction to the school’s astronaut, ISS tours and a live stream of the path and speed with which the ISS was passing overhead entertained a large crowd.

There were also virtual reality booths featuring space walks outside the ISS and even a launch of pneumatic rockets 20 metres into the sky outside the hall.

The crowd gave a huge cheer to celebrate the successful mission when the event concluded.

Asked how this amazing project all got started, Avoca State School principal Michael Kiss said the Bundaberg Amateur Radio Club contacted the school with a proposal as members were interested in testing their skills to make contact with the ISS through ARISS, which is the Amateur Radio International Space Station program.

“We had an initial meeting to discuss the proposal and then we co-constructed and submitted our application to ARISS,” Mr Kiss said.

“Once ARISS approved the submission it had to be approved by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and then when our application was accepted we were on our way.

“We have held regular Zoom meetings between the school, ARISS and BARC to plan the event because BARC was in charge of the construction and operation of the bespoke antennae and radio communications with which the radio contact will be made; ARISS was in charge of the liaison with NASA and Avoca SS was in charge of hosting the event and providing the students to ask questions to the designated astronaut.

“The timing has been especially good as it has coincided with the Perseverance landing on Mars as well as some spectacular ‘moon walks’ for maintenance of the station.”

“While this project is a wonderful connection to the students’ science studies including rocket propulsion, zero gravity impact on human life, astronomy and international co-operation, a highlight has been that every student in the school has been able to engage in virtual reality sessions whereby through VR, they have toured the International Space Station and flown around it on a ‘space walk’.”

BARC members were excited to make contact with the ISS as it was something they had been working on for several months.

Operating since September 1961, the club has more than 30 members who are enthusiasts of all things amateur radio.

Secretary David Nebe said the club had constructed a special antenna tracking system to follow the ISS as it passed over Bundaberg.

“We knew we only had a window of about 10 minutes to chat to the astronaut which was very exciting and were interested to hear the questions the children would be asking,” he said.

The children were sent examples from ARISS to give them some ideas on what to ask.

“Students had to remember it was important to keep the questions brief so that we get to hear Colonel Hopkins speak as much as possible, as this was the most exciting aspect of the night for the children of our school, their parents and community members.

“The International Space Station circles the Earth 16 times per day so it is moving really fast.”

The student questions took about a week to get ARISS approval, and then needed NASA approval.

They were relayed to the ISS in ‘rich text format’ so that Colonel Hopkins could familiarise himself with the questions before the event.

While there were a few predictable questions including ‘what kind of food do you eat in space?’, there were also some interesting ones such as ‘what types of experiments are you currently running and how does zero gravity affect them?’ and ‘how do you get oxygen to breathe in the space station?’.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the children of Avoca State School,” Mr Kiss said.

“No doubt, they will remember it for the rest of their lives.

“What would be really special is if one or more of our children were inspired enough to pursue a career which takes them on a path to being an astronaut in the future; that would be truly amazing.”