Contact with Maj. Tim Peake on the ISS

25th April 2016

On the morning of Saturday 23rd April, a group of CCGS students attended Wellesley House School in Broadstairs for the first ever school-based, live radio call to a British astronaut in space.  Major Tim Peake, aboard the International Space Station, was booked, long in advance, for a twenty minute question and answer session with pupils from several local schools.  The radio connection with the ISS would be achieved with the assistance of amateur radio enthusiasts and specialists. 

Prior to contact, pupils engaged in several educational activities relevant to astronomy, radio communication and other related physics.  Pupils experimented with diffraction and spectrometry, analysed unknown gas samples and learned how radio contact beyond the ionosphere is achieved.  Galileo’s milestone discovery of the four main moons of Jupiter and the implications of their motion on our understanding of the solar system were studied and even Black Holes were discussed.

Travelling at 17,150mph, the ISS isn’t over one place for very long, so timing is everything.  The ‘footprint’ of the ISS, the area on the Earth’s surface within which radio contact can be achieved, is only a few hundred miles wide, which, at 17,150mph, does not take long to cover.  At 1310h, the first attempt was made to contact Maj. Peake, at which point he was passing over the northern part of the Bay of Biscay into the Western Approaches to the English Channel and about 270 miles above it.  Crackle and noise were heard as two more attempts were made.  Contact was achieved shortly after and a live two-way video feed was established.

Over the next few minutes, students asked several questions and listened to Tim’s answers.  Contact was sporadic, reminding all those present of the real technical challenges facing real time radio communications with those in space.  The date was the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, to which one questioner referred, when asking which Shakespearian quotation Maj. Peake thought was most apt for the occasion and what the bard might have thought of the Principia Mission and the events in Broadstairs that day.  Admitting that Shakespeare was not his strong suit, Tim nevertheless answered without hesitation that, given that much of Shakespeare’s work addresses aspiration, ambition, hope, struggle and final triumph, he felt that Shakespeare would have had a lot of good things to say about the contact on the day specifically and about the mission in general. History was being made and those present were aware of it.

Contact was finally lost at 1326h as the ISS disappeared over Scandinavia, beyond the radio horizon of the Earth-based astronomers in Broadstairs and Maj. Peake and the rest of the crew of the International Space Station continued with the day-to-day business of the Principia Mission.

Our sincere thanks go to the organisers at Wellesley House School for hosting such a valuable and enjoyable event and to the representatives of the other organisations attending, who contributed so effectively to the occasion

JJS.


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