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Santa Rosa students talk to US astronaut aboard International Space Station

Like many young people these days, 13-year-old Deon Abille has been thinking a lot about what the world’s adults have done to fuel climate change - and stoke increasingly destructive natural disasters, from droughts and floods to wildfires and hurricanes.

The Santa Rosa Middle School student evacuated from his home when the Tubbs fire roared into town two years ago. He knows how frightening wildfire is up close, but what would such an inferno look like from 240 miles above Earth’s surface?

On Tuesday, Abille got a chance to ask Nick Hague, an American astronaut aboard the International Space Station in orbit over the United States.

“Is it scary to see natural disasters from space?” Abille said, speaking into a microphone set up at the Sonoma County Main Library.

Via ham radio, Hague said he and other ISS astronauts recently had the chance to see a category 5 hurricane - presumably Dorian - approach the mainland.

“From up here it looks completely different. You can see the whole hurricane but it doesn’t even look like it’s moving,” said Hague. “But you definitely know the power and the strength that’s in something like that, and you know that the people on the ground are going to be subject to it.”

The conversation was part of an educational event organized by the Sonoma County Library, local ham radio enthusiasts and the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station project, or ARISS. Abille was among a handful of students from Santa Rosa Middle School who were on hand at the central library to pose questions to Hague aboard the space station.

Hague used a ham radio aboard the space station that was in direct contact with an amateur radio ground station in Maryland. From Maryland, the connection was fed to the downtown Santa Rosa library via a telephone landline.

The students lined up in the meeting room of the library and promptly asked questions - they had only about 12 minutes as the space station traveled directly above the Eastern Seaboard. A computer screen at the library tracked the trajectory of the space station.

The students wanted to know: if Hague got motion sickness in zero gravity; what happens if there’s a “leak” in the space station; and what it was like riding the rocket into space.

Abille’s first question was whether Hague followed a clock keeping time for Earth or if time was kept differently in space.

Hague replied that the space station follows Greenwich Mean Time, the mean solar time at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London.

The end goal of the ARISS program is to encourage students to pursue studies and careers in science, technology, engineering and math. Local amateur radio enthusiast Darryl Paule, member of the Sonoma County Radio Amateurs, helped bring the ARISS event to the Santa Rosa library.

Ann Hammond, director of the Sonoma County Library, said library officials had been working to host an ARISS event since last February. Hammond said it was thrilling to watch the students communicate with an astronaut in space.

“The best part was watching the children and seeing that they have an interest in science and learning about space,” she said.

Tim Bosma, an ARISS mentor and the director of the amateur radio ground station at the Santa Rosa Junior College, said the program is a way to inspire children.

“We want to light a fire under these kids,” he said. “We want to fire up their interest in science.”

For Abille, the program was a “once-in-a-lifetime chance” to converse with an astronaut in space. It also was an outlet for his anxiety about climate change and the peril it poses for people and the environment.

“It’s our future, so we need to do something about it,” he said. “We have to carry the burden of trying to fix what our parents did, or our grandparents.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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