St Albans school talks to astronaut Tim Peake on the International Space Station

16:29 08 January 2016

The main communication desk at the event at Sandringham School as they prepare to make contact with Astronaut Tim Peake on the International Space Station

The main communication desk at the event at Sandringham School as they prepare to make contact with Astronaut Tim Peake on the International Space Station

Archant

Space history was made at Sandringham School in St Albans today (Friday), when its pupils became the first in the UK to speak live with astronaut Tim Peake.

In a link-up, via amateur radio, between the secondary school and the International Space Station, (ISS) where Tim has been based since December 15, pupils asked a range of questions in front of a packed hall, while television crews filmed the historic moment.

Unfortunately there was no video link to see Tim in space, and there was difficulty in both establishing and maintaining communication, which was intermittent.

But the event was hailed as a success, with one of the lucky pupils chosen to speak with Tim, 12 year old Hugo Booth, saying afterwards: “I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.”

A poised Year 10 student, Jessica Leigh, was the first to speak with the astronaut during a small window of opportunity - less than 10 minutes - when the station was passing over the UK, about 400 kilometres overhead.

While Tim was operating the amateur radio equipment on the International Space Station, using the call sign ‘GB1SS’, Jessica attempted about 10 times to reach him, saying repeatedly, “Golf Bravo One Sierra Sierra GB1SS”.

There was great excitement when the link was successfully established, and the former army helicopter pilot finally responded. Jessica said: “Great to hear you Tim. Are you ready for your first question?”

Then students asked a range of scientific questions, via an enthusiastic group of amateur radio enthusiasts armed with the necessary technology inside and outside the school hall.

Pupil Hugo Booth asked Tim what Isaac Newton would have thought of being the inspiration for the naming of the mission.

The Amatuer Radio on the Internation Space Station operators work behind the scenes to make contact with Astronaut Tim PeakeThe Amatuer Radio on the Internation Space Station operators work behind the scenes to make contact with Astronaut Tim Peake

Education and inspiring young people is a core element of ‘Principia’, the name given to European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Tim’s six-month mission on the station, to maintain the research laboratory and run scientific experiments.

Principia was named after Isaac Newton’s ground-breaking text on physics, ‘Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica’, describing the principal laws of motion and gravity physics.

Tim, who said he was using a back up channel and could hear pupils “loud and clear” replied that he thought the mathematician would be ‘honoured’ because of “his understanding of physics and the universe”.

Hugo later told the Herts Advertiser that he had been sceptical about the radio link working, “because there was a lot of static, and I wasn’t sure we would get contact.

A cardboard cutout of astronaut Tim Peake stands in front of the audience at the Sandringham School event which made history by making the first amateur radio call from the UK to a British astronaut on the International space stationA cardboard cutout of astronaut Tim Peake stands in front of the audience at the Sandringham School event which made history by making the first amateur radio call from the UK to a British astronaut on the International space station

“But when we did, it was amazing and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I was shaking quite a lot, because I was feeling nervous, but it was amazing to speak to someone in space.”

Apart from being quizzed about experiments in space, Tim was also asked what would happen to a helium balloon if there was on the ISS.

He replied that it “wouldn’t rise”.

At the end of the Q&A session, Jessica thanked Tim, invited him to visit Sandringham upon his return to Earth, and wished him good luck with his second space walk, due to take place next week, saying, “I hope it goes well.”

Tim and NASA astronaut Tim Kopra will exit the ISS to repair a power unit on the outside.

Jessica, who lived for six years in Latvia and a year in Estonia, told the Herts Advertiser that speaking with Tim had been ‘surreal’.

She said: “It was crazy talking to someone 400km from Earth. I would like to go into space, but it is quite dangerous.”

The Radio Society of Great Britain, the UK’s national society for amateur radio enthusiasts, worked with Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) for the event.

Space experts were also on hand, with Matthew Cosby, chief engineer of defence technology company Qinetiq, praising Sandringham pupils for doing a “brilliant job, as this was outside their comfort zone”.

He said: “We have an industry that needs scientists and engineers. It is a good time to be in the UK space industry at the moment, and the opportunities are huge.”

ARISS team leader Ciaran Morgan told pupils and teachers: “In the amateur radio world, you have made history at Sandringham today, because for the first time ever a British radio amateur has spoken to the International Space Station, with a British astronaut. The enthusiasm shown has been phenomenal.”

In a recorded message aired to the hall prior to the event, the first Briton in space and the first woman to visit the Mir space station 15 years ago, Helen Sharman, spoke about the feeling of weightlessness in space and told pupils to, “have a fabulous day. I know you have been studying hard.”

Sandringham was one of 10 schools short listed for direct contact with Tim on board the ISS, after a competition was run in collaboration between the UK Space Agency, the Radio Society of Great Britain and European Space Agency.

Headteacher Alan Gray said: “It is probably one of the biggest things we have ever organised – we started in April last year with the initial bid.”

He said he hoped it would encourage pupils to follow in Tim’s footsteps.

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