K12 Science Comes from Space, K12 Science Leaves for Space

Update 2014/10/28 4:57pm - The Antares rocket exploded right after lifting off the launch pad. Nobody injured, but it destroyed everything on board.

This is a busy week for primary and secondary school space research. The SpaceX Dragon landed in the Pacific Ocean on Saturday returning 28 student experiments from the International Space Station. Tonight an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket launches the Cygnus cargo module - with 18 more student experiments - to the International Space Station. 310,000 students across America and Canada have taken part in space research - with little burden on the ISS astronauts or Nasa’s budget - but some in Congress think that’s a bad thing.

What Could Possibly Be Wrong With That Congress?

American citizens - and their counterparts in nations around the world - saw Nasa spend billions of their own tax dollars to build the International Space Station. Now Nasa repays the favor by letting our aspiring scientists in primary and secondary school use the space station to conduct research of their own. At a time when science education, particularly in the United States, suffers from a lack of investment, how could anybody criticize programs like this?

Senator Tom Coburn can. The Oklahoma Senator issued his annual “Wastebook” that targets examples of what he believes are wasteful or excessive government projects - including the International Space Station. In particular he points at the student research projects:

While encouraging young people to take an interest in science is an important goal, the billions of dollars being borrowed to support space station science fair experiments could make a bigger impact in the lives of these and other children in many more cost effective ways.

Oh really? The Quest Institute and its partner schools bear the full burden of the costs to reach space. In an open letter to Senator Coburn, Student Spaceflight Experiments Program Director Dr. Jeff Goldstein points out that:

Through a significant effort, in the best spirit of partnership, $572,500 of the total $622,500 cost was raised in the private sector…. The remaining $50,000 was federal funding provided by [the Nasa-funded Center for the Advancement of Science in Space] to close budget shortfalls across the 15 communities.

Fifty grand - not billions. And once on the station, the experiments themselves require little attention from the astronauts. The Quest Institute’s NanoLab is completely autonomous. The astronauts just have to unload it from the cargo craft and pack it up in the Dragon at the end. Activating the SSEP experiments are a simple matter of bend-shake-and-forget.

You can criticize Nasa for a lot of things, but one thing they aren’t doing is spending “billions of dollars” on “science fair experiments.”

How Does Student Spaceflight Happen?

Argula growing in space. This is a closeup taken on the International Space Station of an experiment designed by the Girl Scouts of Hawaii. Source: Nasa/Marshall Space Flight Center Image Credit: Girls Scouts of Hawaii

Argula growing in space. This is a closeup taken on the International Space Station of an experiment designed by the Girl Scouts of Hawaii. Source: Nasa/Marshall Space Flight Center Image Credit: Girls Scouts of Hawaii

Most of these projects get into space thanks to the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program. Over the past 4 years, the SSEP helped 91 student experiments reach the International Space Station - giving over 310,000 students in 31 states, the District of Columbia, and 2 Canadian provinces hands-on experience in the way space research is done from proposal through the presentation of results.

SSEP director Jeff Goldstein told the Tampa Bay Observer: “We don’t refer to these students as kids. They are microgravity researchers. They are asked to do everything professional researchers are asked to do. That flight team designed a real experiment, wrote a real proposal, beat out their colleagues, went through a flight safety review and now they are about to launch. It really is a remarkable achievement.”

The SSEP research projects rely on devices called MixStix from space research company NanoRacks. Each MixStix has 1, 2, or 3 chambers that contain the experiment’s materials. When the ISS astronauts bend the MixStix, the seals between the chambers break. A quick shake mixes the materials, allowing the experiment to begin. The astronauts spend almost no time at all.

The California-based Quest Institute for Quality Education uses a larger NanoRacks device for its ISS Partner Organization Program. NanoRacks - the first commercial laboratory in space - took a module CubeSat-based approach to make microgravity research easier for scientists and for astronauts in space. The NanoLab is a CubeSat- shaped module that plugs into the orbital laboratory. All astronauts need to do is plug it in and flip some switches. The experiments run on their own without any further involvement by the ISS crew. The Quest Institute sub-divides their NanoLab so up to 8 schools can fly their own experiments into space.

Student Research Rides a Dragon Home

A SpaceX Dragon module parachuted into the Pacific Ocean on Saturday, bringing Nasa’s month-long Commercial Re-Supply Mission 4 (CRS-4) to a close. Several student experiments were among the nearly 1,500 kilograms of cargo and science samples that the Dragon brought safely to Earth - including the Quest Institute’s NanoLab module and the SSEP’s Mission 5 experiments.

The Quest Institute’s NanoLab modules included 13 experiments from 5 schools and 2 after-school organizations.

  • “Fungus Mycelium Growth Research Comparison in Microgravity and on Earth” Espoo Christian School (EKK), Finland (Project website, Nasa Mission Page) Mushrooms prefer mild, humid environments. This research looks at how well this potential food supply grows in the station’s warm, dry environment. EKK’s project will form the template as Space for Science expands secondary school space research in Europe.
  • “Microgravity Crystallization and Protein Coagulation Research Comparison” Fremont Christian School, California (Nasa Mission Page) The coagulation of powdered milk in vinegar and crystallization of meat tenderizer in water while in microgravity will let the student researchers compare these processes to lab-based results here on Earth.
  • “Arugula Plant Growth” Girl Scouts of the Islands of Hawaii (Project website, Nasa Mission Page) The student scientist will see if microgravity affects the nutritional content of leafy green vegetables compared to Earth-grown vegetables.
  • “Measuring CO2 levels aboard the International Space Station” Maranatha Christian High School, California (Project website, Nasa Mission Page) A new low-power, light-weight carbon dioxide sensor will measure levels of the toxic gas within the space station.
  • “Exoskeleton Density Analysis of Mealworms in a Microgravity Environment” McMinnville High School, Oregon (Project website, Nasa Mission Page) Mealworms, the darkling beetle’s larval form, is used as a high-protein pet food and can be eaten by humans as well. The research looks into how microgravity affects the mealworms’s pupation into beetles.
  • “Radiation Detection and Mitigation” San Diego Science Alliance Youth Space Institute, California (Project website, Nasa Mission Page) This experiment tests the effectiveness of a radiation dosimeter and a putty-based radiation shield in space.

California’s Valley Christian School, the home of the Quest Institute’s program, sent 7 experiments on this year’s space mission. (Project website)

  • “Ant Colony Behavior in a Microgravity Environment” looks at the effect of microgravity on red harvester ants and the structure of their colonies. (Nasa Mission Page)
  • “Bacterial Growth and Kanamycin Resistance in a Microgravity Environment” looks at the effect of microgravity on E. coli’s resistance to antibiotics. (Nasa Mission Page)
  • “ISS Background Radiation Experiment” uses a Geiger counter to measure radiation during the space station’s orbit. (Nasa Mission Page)
  • “Growing Wisconsin Fast Plants, Chives, and Dandelions in a Microgravity Environment” tests the growth of potential food sources in microgravity. (Nasa Mission Page)
  • “Thermal Conductivity Experiment” Students are investigating the way heat moves through distilled water. (Nasa Mission Page)
  • “Mixing Liquids of Different Densities in a Microgravity Environment” This junior high school experiment explores the way liquids interact with each other and with the walls of the experiment container. (Nasa Mission Page)
  • “Penicillin Growth Preferences in a Microgravity Environment” This junior high school experiment looks whether the penicillin mold grows better on a lattice structure or free floating. (Nasa Mission Page)

SSEP’s Mission 5, nicknamed “Charlie Brown” after the Apollo 10 Command Module, included 15 MixStix-based experiments. (Project website, Nasa Mission Page) [I wrote this post about Mission 5 when it launched in July.] Here's a recap of the research projects these students have done:

  • “Affected Efficacy of Sprayed Enamel Coating as a Corrosion Inhibitor” Milton L. Olive Middle School, New York. They will expose iron disks coated in Rust-Oleum to Coca Cola and see how well it resists corrosion compared to control experiments in the classroom.
  • “How does an onion root cell divide in microgravity?” Northland Preparatory Academy, Arizona. The review board complemented the sophistication of the students’ proposal. They will compare the root cells in sprouting onion seeds to control experiments on Earth to see if microgravity disrupts DNA replication.
  • “Triops as a Protein Source” Mark West Charter School and Riebli Elementary School, California. Triops are freshwater crustaceans known as tadpole shrimp. The experiment will evaluate how well the triops develop in microgravity as a potential astronaut food source.
  • “Growth of Radish Plant in Microgravity” Chavez Prep, Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy, Washington, DC. The students will see whether sprouting radish seeds have a preferential direction for root and shoot growth. On Earth one goes up and the other goes down, but there is no up or down in space.
  • “How many seeds will germinate in microgravity vs. on Earth?” FishHawk Creek Elementary, Florida. The students are looking at lettuce seeds to see whether the vegetable could become a home-grown food source for astronauts.
  • “Will microgravity conditions increase the rate of yeast fermentation in honey?” The Academy @ Shawnee, Kentucky. The students want to see if the fermentation of honey can produce useful levels of alcohol - for medicinal and scientific purposes.
  • “Core-Shell Micro/Nanodisks: Microencapsulation in Two Dimensions under Microgravity” Murray Hill Middle School, Maryland. A mixture of aspirin and gelatin forms microcapsules that slowly dissolve in the stomach. The students will see whether microcapsules formed in microgravity release aspirin at a different rate than microcapsules formed on Earth.
  • “The Production of Antibiotics from Bacillus subtilis in Microgravity” Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School, Massachusetts. Astronauts may not always rely on resupply from Earth, so they will need to produce their own drugs. The students will see how well the antibiotic-producing bacteria handles long-term conditions in space. 
  • “If you cut a Dugesia Planarian worm would it grow back in microgravity?” North Attleboro Middle School, Massachusetts. Biologists use Dugesia Planaria to study basic processes in life sciences and draw parallels to human biology. These students will study the rate of healing in microgravity.
  • “Oxidation in Space” St. Peter’s School, Missouri. The students will study whether iron nails rust faster or slower in microgravity compared to Earth. 
  • “Polyhydroxyalkanoate Production in Zero Gravity” Brookhaven Academy, Mississippi. The bacteria Ralstonia eutropha produces a plastic called polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) that’s used in medical implants. Since future scientists might grow or 3D-print their own medical supplies, the students want to see how well the bacteria handle microgravity.
  • “Penicillium Growth Rate in Microgravity” Pennsauken Phifer Middle School, New Jersey Drug companies used to farm the antibiotic penicillin by extracting it from the penicillium mold. The students want to see if future astronauts could make their own antibiotics by using these natural drug factories.
  • “What is the effect of microgravity on mold growth on white bread?” New Explorations into Science, Technology, and Mathematics, New York. A piece of white bread may grow mold during the months that the experiment spends in space. The students will compare the rate of mold growth to control experiments on Earth.
  • “Lettuce Growth” Cottage Lane Elementary School, New York. Like their Florida counterparts, these students want to see how well lettuce handles conditions in the space station.
  • “Artificial Ear?” Mendenhall Middle School, North Carolina. Jellyfish sense direction using small hairs connected to crystals within their bodies. In space, though, jellyfish lose all sense of direction. The students want to see whether that’s caused by a different rate of crystal growth in microgravity. 

More Student Space Research Ready to Launch

Orbital Science's Antares rocket on the launchpad in Virginia. Credit: Nasa

Orbital Science's Antares rocket on the launchpad in Virginia. Credit: Nasa

SSEP’s Mission 6, nicknamed “Yankee Clipper” after the Apollo 12 Command Module, launches tonight on the Nasa’s CRS-5. It carries 18 MixStix-based science experiments. (Project website, Nasa Mission Page) Here’s a recap of the work elementary, middle and high school students are sending into space.

  • “Creating Crystals in Space” McGowan Park Elementary, Canada. The simple MixStix container will let the students answer dozens of questions about the way liquids mix and crystals form in space.
  • “Composting in Microgravity” Urban Promise Academy, California. Long-term space missions will require a way to convert unused food into fertilizer. This project studies red worms to see how well they convert food waste into compost compared to worms on Earth.
  • “Effects of Microgravity on Early Musca Domestica Growth” San Marino High School, California. This project studies the development of houseflies in microgravity.
  • “The Effect of Microgravity on Phototropism and Geotropism on the Germination of Soybean Seeds” Iberville Math, Science & Arts Academy-West, Louisiana. This 4th grade research project looks at the way soy beans grow in the space station’s lighting and microgravity conditions.
  • “Microgravity’s Effects on Dry Lake Fairy Shrimp” St. Monica Catholic School, Michigan. The students want to study the effect of microgravity on the shrimp’s muscles as an analog to human factors.
  • “Coliform Bacteria” Wilkinson Middle School, Michigan. Coliform, a bacteria that commonly infects water supplies on Earth, could endanger astronauts. The students will look at coliform’s reaction to iodine treatments.
  • “Biocides and Bacteria” St. Peter’s School, Missouri. The students will study the effect of antibacterial liquids on the E coli bacteria.
  • “Baby Bloodsuckers in Outer Space” Columbia Middle School, New Jersey. Mosquitos… in space… for science… by kids.
  • “Hydroponics vs. Microgravity” Gregory School, New Jersey. The students want to see if microgravity makes hydroponics - a more efficient way to grow plants - more or less effective than on Earth.
  • “Attachment of Escherichia coli K-12 Strain to Lettuce” Ocean City High School, New Jersey. Whether harmful bacteria like E coli grow more aggressively in space or not, their ability to attach to foods will determine how dangerous they might be to astronauts. The students will freeze E coli on lettuce leaves and see how well the bacteria sticks.
  • “Can Zero Gravity Affect the Germination of Chia Plants?” World Journalism Preparatory School, New York. A seed growth experiment usign ch-ch-ch-chia seeds.
  • “Milk in Microgravity” Colleton County Middle School, South Carolina. Bacteria cause milk to spoil. By studying the way different kinds of milk spoil while in space, the students hope to understand the factors driving bacterial growth in space.
  • “How Does Spaceflight Affect the Formation of Tin Whiskers on Lead-free Solder?” Palmetto Scholars Academy, South Carolina. Tin whiskers can short circuit electronics - including those in spacecraft. The students will compare the growth of tin whiskers in microgravity to a control experiment in their lab.
  • “Waste in Space: Exploring the Effect of Microgravity on the Rate of Decomposition of Corn Starch by Rid-X” L&N STEM Academy, Tennessee. The commercial septic treatment Rid-X creates carbon dioxide as it breaks down waste material. The students will measure the dissolved carbon dioxide to explore how microgravity changes this process.
  • “Reishi Mushroom VS. Chronic Myeloid Leukemia” Fayette Academy, Tennessee. The mushroom is a traditional Chinese medicine that may have uses treating leukemia and other cancers. The students will take ground-based research done at UCLA and extend it into space.
  • “How Microgravity Effects Yeast Cell Division and How it Relates to Human Cancer Cells” Williams Middle School, Texas. Yeast cells are used in research as a proxy for cancer cells. The students want to learn whether microgravity affects yeast’s usefulness as a cancer research tool.
  • “Crystal Formation” Howsman Elementary and William P. Hobby Middle Schools, Texas. The students’ experiment will study the growth of sodium bicarbonate crystals in solution.

The Yankee Clipper mission also includes a university experiment sponsored by the District of Columbia Space Grant Consortium to encourage women and minorities to pursue science and math related careers. In the project “The Effects of Microgravity on the Development of Chrysanthemum morifolium Seeds” undergraduates at George Washington University and Georgetown University will study how well chrysnthemums - potential air recycling plants - develop in space.

Senator Coburn wants to know how Nasa could let this happen? The question should be: Why doesn't Nasa do more?