Kenilworth School pupils speak live to astronaut floating in space

Kenilworth School pupils ready with their questions for NASA's Serena Aun-Chancellor
Kenilworth School pupils ready with their questions for NASA's Serena Aun-Chancellor

Space did not seem so far away for pupils at Kenilworth School last week as they chatted live with an astronaut working aboard an orbiting space station.

On Friday December 14, 10 pupils asked NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor 20 questions on a variety of space-related topics while she was aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

ARISS engineers setting up the radio antenna before the link-up

ARISS engineers setting up the radio antenna before the link-up

The link-up was the culmination of a newfound interest in space education at the school, which all started when support staff member James Suther set up a space, rockets and robotics club for pupils in 2016.

James said: “It was the best Christmas present anyone could ask for. It was one of the proudest moments of my life, and I was so proud of the students.”

The link was set up by Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS), who allow schools and other groups to talk with astronauts the ISS. The group installed a large radio antenna near the school entrance before the link up took place at 12.55pm.

Due to how fast the ISS was moving - 17,000 mph - the radio signal was only strong enough for a maximum of nine-and-a-half minutes of conversation.

Pupils preparing to ask their questions with ARISS engineers maintaining the signal.

Pupils preparing to ask their questions with ARISS engineers maintaining the signal.

But ARISS engineers experienced no difficulties and the pupils were able to ask all of the questions they wanted to.

One Year 7 pupil, Max Blackwood, asked Serena what surprised her the most about space. She replied that the size of the ISS shocked her the most.

And another year 7 pupil, Elin Bennett, asked whether plants could be grown aboard the ISS, to which Serena said yes, they could.

Elin added: “My whole family is obsessed with space, so it’s just been a really great experience for me.”

And assistant headteacher Richard Garrett was delighted the pupils were not hampered by any unexpected difficulties.

He said: “The whole thing was incredible. I was just so relieved more than anything that there were no technical problems. It was a real once-in-a-lifetime event.”

ARISS decided to come mainly thanks to the efforts of James and the pupils in the Space, Rockets and Robotics Club.

Although it started small, interest in the club steadily built, with pupils taking part in activities like stargazing at Oaks Farm, building their own telescopes and visiting places like Jodrell Bank.

James and his students were hoping to get ARISS to come to Kenilworth School for a chance to speak to an astronaut.

Such an opportunity is rare - just 30 schools in the UK have been visited by ARISS since 2001. The club had applied twice before, but were unsuccessful.

But when confirmation was received in January 2018, James said he and his students were ‘jumping for joy’.

Headteacher Hayden Abbott said the school would continue to educate pupils about space, and said it would always encourage pupils with an interest in space to fulfil their potential.