NASA Scientists Show Four Ways To Cook Your Christmas Turkey

NASA Scientists Show Four Ways To Cook Your Christmas Turkey

Most of you will use ovens to cook your Christmas turkey. But most of you are not NASA. We asked its engineers and science writers how they would cook a turkey to perfection using their high-tech gear instead of traditional methods. Then we asked Josh McKible to illustrate their recipes.

The results are fantastic, kind of hilarious and completely real:

The Antenna Dish Recipe

By Gary Meadows (DSCOVR Mission Systems Engineer) and Karl Hille (Media Specialist)

What you need for this recipe

  • One turkey.
  • Some kapton with vacuum-deposited aluminium (VDA) coating used in thermal blankets that protect many of our spacecraft from the rigours of space flight and direct exposure to the sun.
  • A satellite dish of significant girth to act as a massive parabolic collector and focuser of solar energy.
  • A R-2000 Rotopod, and a thermal data acquisition system like those used in our thermal vacuum chamber.


1. Line one of the dish antennas with the VDA kapton, shiny side out, turning it into a solar reflector.

2. Insert thermal data acquisition system deep into the turkey toward the centre of the stuffing. Connect thermocouple to data acquisition system and set limit to 75C.

3. Stick the bird on a rotopod platform. Mount the rotopod offset to the dish antenna feedhorn, making sure to position the mount so that the rotopod is not between the bird and the dish, and so that the rotational axis is perpendicular to the feedhorn. Program the rotopod to make a 180 degree rotation every 30 minutes. Initiate rotation.

4. Program dish to track the sun and initiate tracking.

5. Prepare mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and everything else while turkey cooks (best to do this mid-day for maximum solar irradiance).

6. Exact cooking time may vary depending on the time of day, air temperature and wind speed. Turkey may be dry on the outside, but towards the centre there ought to be some decent meat and stuffing.

7. When the thermocouple reaches the limit, remove and carve the bird.

8. Eat, watch bad movies, fall asleep, same as every year.

The Thermal Vac Chamber Recipe

By Ellen grey (Science Writter), Candace Carlisle (Deputy Project Manager for GPM), Carmine Mattiello (Branch head for Environmental Test Engineering and Integration), Rob Garner (Media Specialist)

What you need for this recipe:

  • 12,000 turkeys.
  • One Thermal Vac Chamber like the one at NASA’s Goddard, which is 12 metres tall and 8.2 metres wide. Assuming a stuffed turkey takes up a cubic foot or so of space, the thermal vac could hold 10,000 or 12,000 at one time with room to spare for candied yams and drip pans.
  • Instructions

    1. Get the turkeys in individual seal packing to ensure a juicy finished product. Otherwise, as the vacuum pumps go, the chamber would double as a dehydrator and leave you with 12,000 birds’ worth of turkey jerky.

    2. The chamber is normally used to simulate outer-space temperatures and can heat to about 150C. While its maximum temperature is less than a conventional oven, sticking a 12kg turkey in for a slow-cook at 150C for five and a half hours should do the trick.

    3. One of the greatest time-savers of the thermal vac test kitchen is that you can cook and freeze all in the same chamber. If you won’t be ready to eat all 12,000 turkeys right away, you can plunge the chamber down and preserve your leftovers at a brisk -150C.

    The Solar Dynamics Observatory Recipe

    By Karen Fox (Science Writer) and C. Alex Young (Solar Scientist at SDO)

    What you need for this recipe

  • One turkey.
  • One Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft (for extra-crispy turkey, you need one Solar Probe Plus*.
  • Instructions

    1. Strap it to the front of the Solar Dynamics Observatory — on the sun-facing side it would be exposed to temperatures of around 200C. Leave it there for 1 hour and 45 minutes for it to cook completely.

    2. If you’re doing one of those recipes with an initial high temperature blast, which then requires that you lower the temps for a long final roast, you could move the turkey over to the side of the spacecraft for a while, where temperatures get lower.

    3. To make sure it survives until humans are able to eat it, move it the deep freeze in the back of the spacecraft where temperatures get as low as -200C. All spacecraft must deal with this thermal problem in which parts of the spacecraft are much much hotter than others – cooling and heating systems are employed within to try to keep instruments at consistent temperatures.

    You have to wait a few years for this alternative. The Solar Probe Plus will launch no earlier than 2018 and it will come closer to the sun than Mercury, flying as close as 3.7 million miles away from the sun as opposed to SDO, which is almost 93 million miles away from our home star.

    The Sounding Rocket Recipe

    By Karl Hille (Media Specialist)

    What you need for this recipe

  • One turkey.
  • One Antares-class sounding rocket
  • Extra fuel
  • One structure of brick or stone to protect the bird and store heat, as well as the possibility of placing your turkey offset from the main stream (unless you want to solve the problem of distributing bits of cooked turkey to a broadly dispersed audience as quickly as possible.)
  • Instructions

    1. Get the turkey in the protective box.

    2. Fire the rocket engine for 1:45 hours. That’s it.

    Here’s a crew escape system rocket test. These are significantly more powerful than most sounding rockets, but you get the idea of how this will work.

    Special thanks to Rebecca Roth and all the engineers and writers at NASA’s Goddard Space centre and NASA Wallops Flight Facility.

    Recipe illustrations: MCKIBILLO