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NASA battles solar storm with rubber chicken

Relax, 2012 does not spell doom for Earth -- massive solar storms or not. And even if there was a threat, NASA has an awesome secret weapon.

Camilla pinpoints the sun. NASA video screenshot by Edward Moyer/CNET

Calm down, already. NASA swears that the Earth absolutely, definitely will not be annihilated by a massive flaming belch from the sun this year.

But just in case you're still a little worried, you'll no doubt be reassured to know the august space agency is holding nothing back in its efforts to study the sun's activity in 2012. In fact, it's even gone so far as to enlist the help of a very, very serious group of high school students, equipped with that most serious of scientific instruments: the rubber chicken.

Yes, students of Bishop Union High in Bishop, Calif. -- along with their mentor, Science@NASA's Tony Phillips, and a group of fifth-grade assistants -- recently launched a rubber chicken into the stratosphere during the most intense solar radiation storm since 2003.

Don't post a nasty, budget-related comment just yet, though. This wasn't any old astrorubberchicken; this was Camilla -- the mascot of NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory -- and she was wearing a specially knitted spacesuit complete with high-tech sensors for measuring radiation. She was also accompanied by a specially modified lunchbox equipped with four cameras, two GPS trackers, a cryogenic thermometer, two-dozen sunflower seeds, and seven insects.

The students sent Camilla on two balloon-powered missions last month: one on March 3, before the storm, and one a week later, when the storm was blasting away. The 2.5-hour journeys allowed our heroic and self-sacrificing chicken to spend 90 minutes in the stratosphere before the balloon popped -- at an altitude of 25 miles -- and Camilla parachuted down to a landing site in the Inyo Mountains.

"We equipped Camilla with sensors to measure the radiation," 16-year-old Sam Johnson, of Bishop Union High's Earth to Sky student group, was quoted as saying in a post on NASA's Web site. "At the apex of our flight, the payload was above 99 percent of Earth's atmosphere."

Fellow team member Rachel Molina, 17, explained in the same post that these Camilla missions aren't, in fact, efforts to gauge the probability of an Earth-melting sunburp. Rather, they're part of an astrobiology project by the students. "Later this year, we plan to launch a species of microbes to find out if they can live at the edge of space," she said after mission No. 2. "This was a reconnaissance flight."

If the seven insects are any indication, the microbes probably don't have a chance. None of the bugs survived, and now are pinned to a black "Foamboard of Death" overseen by the fifth graders. The youngsters are also planting the radiated seeds to see if they can cultivate giant man-eating sunflower plants and take over the world the seeds produce flowers that are any different than those put forth by seeds that stayed behind on Earth. Meanwhile, the high schoolers have transferred the radiation sensors to a commercial lab for analysis.

You can check out a video of the balloon pop, and Camilla's death-defying parachute deployment, below. (Other videos are available here.)

As for flaming tongues of Armegeddonish woe from the sun, well, as we said before, calm down. There's absolutely no reason to suspect that a NASA-sponsored project by a group of rubber-chicken-wielding high schoolers to examine the viability of low-cost systems for sustaining life off-planet has anything to do with the possibility of the planet ceasing to exist sometime in the near future. Really. There's nothing to see here, folks. Move along.