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From Training to Blastoff: A Peep Space Odyssey

July 6, 2008

By William Hageman, Chicago Tribune

Jul. 6–The Adler Planetarium’s recent launch of a Marshmallow Peep into space is a twist on experiments that the 10-person Adler crew has been conducting for a while. The payload on this launch, Mission 12 of the Far Horizons program, was an experiment by two students at Aurora’s Illinois Math & Science Academy who wanted to measure how much brighter it is in space.

Astro Peep just hitched a ride.

“On any mission we like to use a video camera to document the flight,” said astronomer Mark Hammergren. “And we said, if we have a video camera, and we have a Peep, why not video the Peep?”

“Against the curvature of the Earth,” added interactive visualization developer Julieta Aguilera.

Sheer scientific genius.

Of course, you can’t just grab any Peep off the shelf and send him skyward.

“We had to choose a Peep who had the right fluff,” Hammergren said.

So candidates underwent rigorous psychological and physical training, as demonstrated in a slide show the group put together (http://svl.adlerplanetarium.org/astropeep/index .html). The prospective Peeponauts studied the history of space exploration, they were tested in extreme heat and cold, they took a spin on the centrifuge (a.k.a. a ceiling fan).

“And we ran a few tests with a vacuum [chamber],” Aguilera added.

“They taste the same,” reported Rivka Rosen, another member of the team.

The video of the adventure shows the helmetless Peep, pinned in place on its duct tape-and-Styrofoam birdhouse, as it is freed from its earthly bonds. The $100 video camera records our brave hero as the balloon takes him to 6,700 feet; 57,000 feet; 89,000 feet and beyond.

“At that altitude, it’s 1 percent of the pressure [on the ground], the sky is black, you see the curvature of the Earth,” said Geza Gyuk, the Adler’s director of astronomy. “It’s fantastic. You’re 99 percent into space.”

Eventually, at around 100,000 feet, the balloon pops. After a few rough moments–the box containing the students’ experiment smashes into and nearly flattens the fearless Peep–the chute opens and the mission is completed.

The Adler crew hopes these experiments are a sort of steppingstone. They once dreamed of launching their own high-powered rockets, but common sense intervened.

“There is the problem of working with high explosives,” Hammergren said.

“And working with high school kids,” Gyuk pointed out.

So they turned to the high-altitude weather balloons, which you can buy, assemble, launch and recover for considerably less than $500.

The next step, they hope, might be to be part of CubeSat, a consortium of universities and other learning centers involved in space. For about $40,000 you can get your payloads sent up on a real rocket.

Until then, though, they’ll continue with the balloons, including at a summer student workshop.

“The workshop will feature high-altitude ballooning,” Hammergren said. “Maybe not Peeps, but if they can come up with something….”

“Maybe different colors,” Aguilera suggested.

“Or maybe hollow chocolate rabbits,” Gyuk said. “Maybe Peeps rabbits. Will their ears freeze while the rest expands?”

Science marches on.

The summer student workshop is full, but for more of what’s going on at the Adler, go to adlerplanetarium.org/astroscience.

bhageman@tribune.com

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