During his stay at the International Space Station (ISS),  Tim Peake participated in research to understand how the body reacts to being in space for long periods.


IRIS students had the opportunity to contribute to this research effort through the charity’s partnership with the European Space Agency, NASA, the University of Houston and CERN@school.


Young scientists were given access to data from five radiation detectors – Timepix chips – on the ISS. The detectors collected data every four seconds at different locations within the station. The same information was being, and continues to be, studied by NASA’s Space Radiation Analysis Group. Understanding the impact of these radiation on astronauts is important in the aim to bring long-term human space flight missions into fruition.

Timpix: Student researchers12:14 MINUTES
Timpix: Student researchers12:14 MINUTESWatch video

Once students conquered an introductory exercise, they could request data sets from specific periods of time they wanted to research, like during a solar flare.


The project provided an unrivalled learning experience for students. It showed them that when armed with purpose and a timely and relevant information source, analysing data can be hugely interesting and rewarding. Most students spent months exploring anomalies in the data, periods indicating intense radiation levels, and reflecting on where the ISS was orbiting at the time. Students from Plymouth High School for Girls and The Thomas Hardye School questioned why there might be hotspots off the South American coast. A few even presented their findings to Tim Peake, himself.


NASA, we have a problem.


However, the discovery that received the most attention was uncovered by a student from Tapton School. While reviewing reams of data, Miles, an A level student fell upon an anomaly in NASA’s data. The physics student, who now studies mathematics at the University of Oxford, was stumped by random recordings of -1. He found this peculiar as radiation cannot have a negative rate of energy, so he alerted his teacher. His teacher notified IRIS, who, in turn, contacted NASA.

Tapton student talks on the NASA anomaly 01:57 MINUTES
Tapton student talks on the NASA anomaly 01:57 MINUTESWatch video


While NASA had noticed this before, they were not aware of its frequency. They asked Tapton students to start charting the instances of -1 readings. The students got straight on it. Miles created a graph charting the occurrences.


“It’s pretty cool, you can tell your friends, ‘I just emailed NASA and they’re looking at the graphs I made.’,” says Miles.


It turns out, the Timpix chip was recording -1, instead of 0, when it detected no radiation. 


“We got the data and went through the training…it was amazing. It just suddenly cascaded into these students just diving into big data and finding out some really amazing things,” said James Oneill, a physics teacher from Tapton School.


Timepix – A Chip like None Other


The Timepix chip was developed by an international collaboration at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN). Timepix allows the measurement of location, energy deposition and the time-of-arrival information for ionising radiation particles passing through the sensor.