The Thomas Hardye School

Exploring Space Radiation with Tim Peake

Students meet Tim Peake

Photo credit: Christopher Ison / University of Portsmouth / UK Space Agency

Original project research carried out by the CERN@school team (L-R) Alfred dal Din, Jonathan Hoare, Emily McFarlane, Joshua Doherty and Joshua Nugent, all in in Year 13, has been rewarded by a chance to meet astronaut Tim Peake and to receive Gold Crest awards, presented by Dr Michael Campbell, leader of the Medipix laboratory, CERN.

The team of gifted sixth form physicists have been working in school with a ‘Timepix’ chip from the Medipix laboratory provided by the Institute of Research in Schools’ CERN@school programme which aims to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers by offering access to CERN technology.  The Timepix chip acts as a 3d camera for alpha, beta and gamma radiation and records  data including Latitude and Longitude, Altitude, Time and Date, Exposure time, Frame Energy, Number of Pixels detected, Percentage of the screen hit by pixels.


Following a Space Masterclass in the summer term, presented by Mike Grocott from the UK Space Academy and sponsored by The Ogden Trust, the team were given ‘TimPix’ data collected at 400km above Earth on 4 of the chips which had been taken on board the International Space Station (ISS) by astronaut Tim Peake Dec 2015-June 2016 during the Principia Mission. Mr Grocott suggested that the students might investigate possible causes for a hotspot anomaly for frame energy, evident in an area of the South Atlantic, as recorded by the Timpix data.  With support from former Thomas Hardye student Fionn Bishop, the students worked very hard on finding an explanation; they came up with a hypothesis that ground sources of radiation might be responsible and then used original experimental and information science to eventually conclude that the hotspot was most likely caused by space weather. They showed that it was extremely unlikely to have been caused by ground radiation sources or the altitude of the space station or any effect of the ozone layer and most likely due to an area of weak magnetic field strength. They further concluded that this area was not fixed and that it was important for maps to be kept up-to-date to enable satellites and the ISS to switch off equipment that might be damaged by exposure to high levels of radiation.

Presentation by Students

The project was selected by the UK Space Agency to be presented at the Principia conference held in Portsmouth on 2nd November which celebrated a wide variety of projects linked to Tim Peake’s Principia mission. Josh Doherty and Josh Nugent were fortunate to attend and present the team’s findings (whilst the other 3 team members were occupied by university entrance tests!). Following a spellbinding keynote speech given by Tim Peake himself in which he shared his experiences of six months of space travel, the students were given a chance to meet their inspirational hero and to discuss their project, including specifics about the frame energy data recorded above Dorset by the ISS and the South Atlantic Anomaly.

The following week, all 5 team members were available to take part in the annual CERN@school symposium, which this year was held at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL), Harwell. It was the turn of Jonathan Hoare, Emily McFarlane and Alfred Dal Din to step forward and give the same presentation to a gathering of 170 students and professional academics and leaders from industry  which was live streamed.

The team were given a tour of RAL’s world-leading ISIS neutron and muon source which provides a stream of particles for a huge range of research uses. They also listened to a range of talks on lasers, GIS applications (including citizen science slug identification), software solutions facilitating good data presentation, and many school projects using the Timepix chip such as CERN@sea, RAY and LUCID and were encouraged to become Higgs Hunters. During a workshop session, new school members were encouraged to get involved and explore a range of experiments with their own CERN@school Timepix chip.

Four of the team are amongst a party of 40 Year 13 physicists who have visited CERN near Geneva and gave their project talk to the whole group, together with staff from Medipix during a tour of their laboratory. While there, they caught up with Dr Michael Campbell. They also plan to enter The Big Bang Competition and to write up a short scientific paper sharing their original findings in a school science journal.

You can see videos of the Symposium here:


November 2016