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Saturday, 22 June 2013

Taikonauts teach from space

Historic lecture broadcast live to millions of students all over China.

Students gathered in a school in Beijing ask Chinese astronaut Wang Yaping questions as she delivers a lesson from the Tiangong-1 space station  

ABOUT 1,000 Form 4, 5 and 6 students from the Beijing No 2 Middle School were glued to the projection screen in their classrooms to watch the historic lecture broadcast live from space together with millions of pupils and students in China.

Many students from the school could not take their eyes off the 40-minute physics lesson in which three Chinese taikonauts on board the Tiangong-1 orbiter first showed how they meditated airborne and measured their weight using a special scale, designed based on the Newton’s second law of motion, in a gravity-free environment.

Wang Yaping, China’s second female taikonaut and the teacher in charge of the lecture, then demonstrated how a gyro in a high-speed rotation motion could actually maintain the position of its axis in space like that on Earth.

She pushed a static gyro in the air and then spanned another gyro. The static gyro rolled forward but the rotating gyro kept its axis intact.

She noted that the fixed axis concept of the high-speed rotating gyro has been widely used in the aerospace field, saying that a wide range of gyroscopes had been installed in the Tiangong-1 orbiter to measure its flight pattern accurately.

Fifth former Wu Tong said she was especially fascinated with the experiment conducted by Wang to examine the movement of a small ball tied with a string to a holder fixed on a metal plate.

“Previously, we have been taught on the theory and not the practical side of it. It is rather difficult to simulate a vacuum environment.

“In class, our teacher used to tell us that the ball would move in a circular motion (when one pushed it) and would not stop. Today, we finally saw it for ourselves,” she said.

To many students, another highlight of the lecture was the water ball experiment that explained how zero-gravity magnified the surface tension of water.

Wang made a water film on a metal ring by inserting the ring into a water bag. Then she added more water onto the ring to form a thicker water film and eventually a water ball.

The water ball miraculously did not break even when commander of the crew Nie Haisheng used an injection needle to extract the bubbles inside the water ball.

After that, Wang moved closer to the water ball and said: “Look at this water ball. Does it look like an inverted microscope? Through it, you can see my inverted image!” At this moment, the classrooms were filled with thunderous applause.

Wu described the experiment as “magical and ingenious”.

“The experiment was well designed. They also injected gas and coloured liquid into the water ball to show us the increasing surface tension of the water,” she said.

Another fifth former Gu Xu said: “We have just studied this topic on surface tension. It is quite amazing to see how the coloured liquid spread all over the water ball.”

Apart from a total of five experiments, the taikonauts also took questions from four students who were attending the lecture at the High School Affiliated to Renmin University in Beijing.

On the presence of space debris, Wang said they had not spotted any space debris since they entered the orbit but they do exist.

“The number is quite big but the possibility of the debris hitting the spacecraft is rather small. If they do collide with the spacecraft, the consequences could be disastrous.

“That’s why before embarking on our mission, we had conducted an analysis of space debris and taken preventive measures to protect the Tiangong-1 orbiter,” she said.

“Did you see any UFO?” asked a Standard Four pupil amid laughter from the rest of the students.

Wang said that through the spacecraft window they could see the beautiful colours of the Earth, the moon and stars, but no UFO.

Wu said the lecture was very meaningful for her to widen her knowledge of space science.

She said she was proud of the Chinese taikonauts for conducting the nation’s first lecture from space, after other such feats by space exploration powerhouses like the United States and Russia.

Gu said the gravity-free environment in space provided scientists with new ideas and it was important for China to take the lead in exploring space and acquiring its technology.

“The research and development in science has no limits. When we are in command of everything on the land and in the sky and sea, space will be our new frontier,” he said.


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