A group of Mafikeng primary school pupils will have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to talk directly with an astronaut on the International Space Station (ISS) in May. And it’s all thanks to their school’s interest in space – notably their feat of winning the 2014 AstroQuiz.
They will be able to ask Captain Samantha Cristoforetti (the first Italian woman in space) questions about life in space, science experiments conducted on the ISS and astronomy in general.
This direct contact with “Futura” – the long-term mission of the Italian and European Space Agencies on the ISS – is being facilitated by the Italian Embassy in Pretoria, the school contacts activity of Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) and the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA). Futura started on 10 November 2014 and will end in May this year.
ARISS is a group of volunteers devoted to creating the experience for learners worldwide to talk directly to crew members on the ISS, inspiring an interest in science and technology, encouraging them to pursue careers in these fields, including engineering and mathematics, and engaging them with radio science technology through amateur radio.
SAASTA helped identify a school for this project – and the choice was easy: Sol Plaatje Primary School team beat 1 101 other schools to win SAASTA’s National AstroQuiz in 2014. A group of about 30 will join the winning AstroQuiz team, Ebenitha Esterhuizen, Kgotlholela Seagisa, Oratile Selatlhedi and Orefile Morule (who have all now moved on to Grade 8 in high school), with their educator Micalla Lucas to talk to Captain Cristoforetti.
On 2 May, the children will make “telebridge” contact from their school hall with the astronaut, arranged by ARISS and the Italian Embassy through one of many high performance ground stations covering the world. These stations are maintained and operated by experienced amateur radio volunteers. On the day of the event, the ISS will transit over one of the ARISS telebridge stations in Italy, from where the signals will be transmitted to the school via telephone line.
Collaboration in the areas of science, technology and innovation between South Africa and Italy was strengthened last year by the signing of a three-year Bilateral Programme of Cooperation. Italy is also collaborating in the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project, which will be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope ever to be constructed.
AstroQuiz is a competition aimed at Grade 7 learners and is based on astronomy themes. The project is funded, coordinated and managed by SAASTA, a business unit of the National Research Foundation tasked with engaging the South African public with science and technology. Last year, it reached almost 4 500 pupils in more than a thousand schools.