A schoolboy in the UK has helped NASA identify a problem with a radiation sensor on the International Space Station (ISS), as part of a citizen science project.
Speaking to BBC World at One (starts around the 16-minute mark), 17-year-old Miles Solomon said he and his classmates had been given data from the TimPix Project, research started by British astronaut Tim Peake during his time on the station in 2015 and 2016.
In particular, Solomon was looking at data from radiation sensors installed on the station as part of this project, known as the Radiation Environment Monitor. These monitor the levels of radiation on the station, noting when it is high and low.
Solomon noticed that some of the readings, however, were recording negative energy values – which is impossible. Thus, he correctly deduced that there must be a problem with the sensors, and sent an email to NASA to tell them.
“I noticed that where we should have had no energy, so there was no radiation for that four seconds [how often readings are taken], it was actually showing minus one,” he told the BBC. “And the first thing I thought there is, well you can’t have negative energy. And then we realised that this was an error.”
NASA had apparently already known about this issue, but they thought it was only occurring once or twice a year due to a problem with an algorithm. But Soloman found it was occurring multiple times a day. Professor Larry Pinsky from the University of Houston, who works on the radiation monitors, told the BBC the correction was “appreciated more so than it being embarrassing.”
This finding was made possible by the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS), which gives students access to real data from actual experiments taking place on Earth and in space. This includes not just the ISS, but research taking place in other places like the IceCube Neutrino Observatory in Antarctica too.
Citizen science projects like this are extremely useful, for both the students to get involved with real data and for organizations like NASA. Other projects, such as Zooniverse, encourage people to look for planets beyond the Solar System, among other things.
And you never know, you just might get the chance to prove the world’s largest space agency wrong. Solomon has now been invited by NASA to help them look at the problem.