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Astronaut Chris Hadfield challenges young Canadians

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When Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield heads to the International Space Station this December, the everyday items he will have with him — such as socks, dental floss and duct tape — will be used in some of the scientific experiments he conducts on board.

These items, along with other common household objects, are part of the Canadian Science Challenge, a contest for youth launched by the Canadian Space Agency. The challenge invites classrooms across the country to propose ideas for experiments that would test how objects behave in microgravity. The one catch is that the experiments can only use items that are already available at the space station. The list of items, which includes things like cotton swabs, post-it notes and tweezers, is available on the agency's website.

Speaking Monday at a press conference in Longueuil, Que., Hadfield said the aim of the project is to encourage kids to design experiments using everyday objects. As an example, he posed the question, 'How would hockey game work in space?' and invited two students to play a tabletop match using pencils and a roll of electrical tape.

The winning submissions will be chosen by the space agency and assembled by Hadfield himself while on board the ISS. The experiments will be captured on video and the results sent back to Earth.

"We're looking for a simple way to challenge people to think about the science and not bring extra equipment," Hadfield said. "It will be limited only by the imaginations of the students involved."

Engaging Canadians

The contest is part of an effort by the Canadian Space Agency to make the upcoming space mission as inclusive as possible, said Hadfield.

Life-sized cardboard cutouts of Hadfield are available online and at museums across the country so that people can take pictures with them.

Hadfield said he will also be tweeting from space. "I'm really looking forward to that experience myself, but even more than that, to share my experience with everyone around the world," he said.

The Milton, Ont., native is set to launch into orbit this December aboard a Russian Soyuz shuttle and will become the first Canadian Commander of the International Space Station.

Hadfield, who joined the Canadian Space Agency in 1992, is also the first Canadian to walk in space and the only Canadian to ever board the Mir space station.

Training for command

At the press conference in Longueuil, Hadfield described the last few years of training for this mission, called Expedition 34/35, an experience he called "long, fascinating, challenging, interesting."

Although Hadfield will not be piloting the Soyuz himself, he learned how to fly the aircraft in case of an emergency. He also prepared for spacewalks outside the ISS with a virtual reality helmet and gloves that simulated crawling outside the craft. "It's one of the few ways to get a sense of what it's like to go out of the airlock, to have the world above you and the station under you and the universe around you," he said.

Two crew members – Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko and American astronaut Tom Marshburn – will accompany Hadfield on Expedition 34/35. They will join three residents already on board the ISS. Hadfield will serve as a Station flight engineer until the first crew departs in March 2013, when he will take over as commander.

The launch date, previously scheduled for Dec. 5, has now been moved to Dec. 19.

Mission tasks

During his six-month stay at the ISS, Hadfield will take at least one spacewalk outside the ISS for repair and maintenance.

He will also operate the Canadian-made robotic limb, Canadarm2, to reach out and grab unmanned cargo capsules launched by private companies containing food, clean clothes and equipment for experiments.

At any given time, there are about 100 experiments running inside and outside the space station, Hadfield said.

One Canadian invention that the crew will be testing on the ISS is the Microflow, a miniature device that takes blood samples and can provide immediate analysis of everything from infections, to stress, blood cells and cancer markers.

While there are machines that currently do this – called flow cytometers – they weigh hundreds of pounds and exist mostly in hospitals. The Microflow is about the size of a toaster and would allow instantaneous diagnoses both in space and in remote communities on Earth.

Other experiments aboard the ISS will look at the effect of radiation on humans, the impact of long-duration space flight on blood vessels and how micro-scale particles are dispersed in liquids.