TCS became the first Irish school to make radio contact with the International Space Station (ISS) on Thursday last, 19 Oct, 2017. The day was the culmination of two years of preparation. On Thursday morning the excitement in the school was palpable. Having lost two days to Ophelia, the pressure was on to get everything set up on Wednesday so that the event could go ahead as planned on Thursday, when the contact was scheduled for 13:48. The window of opportunity only lasts for up to 12 minutes as the orbiting ISS passe over western Europe at the rate of 27,600 kilometres per hour. If the radio link fails within that timeframe – there is no second chance!
Led by Daniel Cussen, ARISS Radio Technical Co-ordinator, the team of volunteers from IRTS set up a temporary amateur radio station on the school grounds which included an antenna, and the two-way radio system to enable communication exchanges between TCS and the ISS. All through Wednesday, the team worked alongside the staff and students to ensure that everything was connected, and that everyone was ready.
At 7.00 am on Thursday morning the school was abuzz with activity. Faults were investigated and cleared, weird deafening noises were tuned out and finally eliminated. All the while the arts and cultural elements of the event were running through their rehearsals. The whole school community was engaged in the project in all kinds of ways – art competitions with a space theme, building space station models, researching radio communications, creating learning displays, investigating nutrition for astronauts, digging up 20th century songs with a space theme, connecting back to our cultural roots through Irish dancing!
At 12:40 the students began to take their seats in the hall along with members of the Board of Management and a small number of guests from local primary schools. Now we were in countdown mode – T-65 and counting. The show was opened by student MCs Adam and Liam, who introduced the first musical number A Sky full of Stars. This was followed by a very informative talk on radio telescopes and Ireland’s part in I-LOFAR, by astrophysicist Aoife Ryan. Then Dr Sophie Murray talked to the audience about space weather and the impact of sun events on the Earth.
At T-35, attempts were made to establish the link with Sweden and during a brief cultural exchange the TCS dancers entertained us with several pieces. At T-20, after a brief welcome from the school Principal, Teresa Hennessy, the audience had an opportunity to hear from Dr Norah Patten, Ireland’s very own astronaut in training. Due to make the 2022 team in space, we wish her the best of luck. As tension mounted, we viewed the tracker showing the ISS over South America, it was only a matter of minutes. To ease the nerves, Sinead sang the second musical number, Fly me to the Moon, and everyone relaxed for a few moments.
At T-14, the event was handed over to the technical experts. On hand was the ARISS national co-ordinator, Séamus McCague who explained the role of ARISS and how the contact with the ISS was going to happen. Then it was time. T-2 – attempts to make contact with the ISS and the Italian astronaut on board Paulo Nespoli begin. Everyone is holding their breath. At the same time, the link to Sweden is not working well. While an initial link was established, the interference and loss of quality meant that unfortunately their involvement had to be curtailed.
“Oscor Romeo Four India Sierra Sierra (OR4ISS) - do you copy?” – Séamus McCague starts the conversation and the moment that Paulo Nespoli responded with “Good morning everybody”, we knew the real event was about to happen. The students were ready with their questions, and for the next few precious minutes the dialogue continued. The event was streamed live over the Internet and is available to view here.
The ARISS is a global voluntary group that formalised a programme for utilising radio equipment on-board the ISS as a channel for further educating schools across the world on the work of the international space programme, life on-board the ISS, expeditions which astronauts are undertaking and amateur radio. Thousands of applications are received from schools all over the world to be part of the initiative.
TCS was a standout choice due to its Inspiring Science Education initiative which promotes hands on, inquiry-based and collaborative learning. It provides the tools to make science education more challenging, playful and above all more imaginative and inspiring for today’s students. Teachers at TCS are also members of the Galileo Teacher Training Programme which creates a series of professional development activities designed to help teachers and educators to learn and create resources on big topics in Astronomy and Planetary science.
This event could not have been possible without the amateur radio enthusiasts who volunteered their free time to put the technical show together. Special thanks to Dan Cussens, Seamus McCague, Joe Ryan and the rest of the team. Ian Boran, physics and maths teacher, led this project from its infancy and put in countless hours of his free time to bring it to fruition, and finally, a big shout out to Paulo Nespoli, astronaut on board ISS, who gave up his valuable time to talk to us. Pics