“A brave duck”

reports from the launch site of AstroDuck – AstroSoc’s most audacious project yet. Part of our series on York Science Week

This morning I got up and cycled as fast as I could to Hes East. That’s right, The University of York’s Heslington East Campus. What on Earth would I do that for? Fair question. The answer is actually further from Earth than you might guess.

I was going to see the launch of a rubber duck into space, and the first thing I noticed as I arrived at the launch site – the grassy area outside the Ron Cooke Hub – was a white globe, about 2 metres across. The team were all wearing blue gloves, talking excitedly and a few members were being very creative with gaffa tape, whilst a crowd upwards of 50 people had gathered.

The AstroDuck crew, right before launch. Photo credit: Sam Wainwright

The AstroDuck crew, right before launch.
Photo credit: Sam Wainwright

The duck himself was on the end of a stick, facing a camera in a box. Someone pointed the onboard camera at the audience, which was then hung precariously from a large balloon. “He’s a brave duck!” someone yelled from the crowd. The balloon rose up in the air at quite a speed once it got going, and the large white globe disappeared against the background of the cloudy sky in a couple of minutes.

Tobias Reed, who had the initial idea for the project, spoke to me after the launch: “[AstroDuck] is our mascot… we said right from the beginning of the year, ‘we’re going to launch a duck into space – this is AstroDuck’, and that’s what we’ve based all our publicity around.”

The AstroDuck launch was actually very weather dependent. “Rain can damage the balloon, and we are still concerned about clouds, because they’re made of water. But it should be alright.” And it wasn’t just rain they had to think about, the wind also had to be blowing North-East. “That’s the only way air traffic control could let us do it. Leeds and Bradford airport is quite a big airport, and that’s down to the South West.” A member of the team joked about it landing in the North Sea, which is about 40 miles away. Weather balloons like this normally go about 10 miles, so it’s not likely, but it’s definitely possible.

“We were going to put a black box on, which would tell us about the temperature, pressure, things like that, but it’s broken. It’s in one of those boxes over there.” But the atmosphere stayed very positive. “We’ll get a good picture of the duck and all of the curvature of the Earth. We’ve got two GPS trackers on either side as well – that’s how we’re going to find the thing eventually.”

He’s clearly very attached to the project, and rightly so. AstroSoc has never done something like this before. “I have been involved in AstroSoc since day one of uni, and it was kind of dead right at the beginning. All of us have kind of helped build it up back to what it was when it first started… we’re just looking at what’s the next phase: what’s the next exciting thing we can do? And AstroDuck was high up on the list of things we could do.” AstroSoc also now do telescope trips and host public talks. “We’d definitely be looking forward to doing something like this next year as well.”

AstroSoc will update their duck’s journey on their Twitter page @YorkAstroDuck, and they’ll also release the footage once it’s been edited. “That’s the main thing, that’s the really interesting thing” says Tobias.

UPDATE: AstroDuck is lost!

To find out more about AstroSoc, visit their website, or find them on Facebook or Twitter.

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