Student Experiments Return From ISS

Students at Howard Phifer Middle School from Pennasauken, NJ, complete their proposal for the Effects of Microgravity on Eggshells and Vinegar. (Credit: NCESSE)
Students at Howard Phifer Middle School from Pennasauken, NJ, complete their proposal for the Effects of Microgravity on Eggshells and Vinegar. (Credit: NCESSE)

by Jessica Nimon
International Space Station Program Science Office
NASA’s Johnson Space Center

When you’re young, waiting even six months for something you’re excited about can seem like an eternity. So while the returning crew of the International Space Station likely couldn’t wait to come back to their families on Earth, they were not the only ones that counted down the days to this weekend’s Soyuz landing. Select groups of students eagerly anticipated this touchdown, too, knowing the Russian spacecraft also ferried the science experiments they conceived and designed as space station investigations.

“These student researchers are America’s next generation of scientists and engineers,” said Jeff Goldstein, Ph.D., center director of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE). “Their microgravity experiments were selected from more than 1,400 experiment proposals submitted by student research teams.”

These studies make up part of the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program’s (SSEP) third mission, called Falcon I, which launched to the space station on Sept.18 aboard Orbital Science’s Cygnus. This was the cargo spacecraft’s maiden voyage to the space station. Mission 3 includes a total of 17 investigations, divided with Falcon I including five of the studies and the remaining 12 categorized as Falcon II. The reason for the split was the necessity for a vehicle that could support refrigeration for some of the experiment samples. The Mission 3 Falcon II investigations, along with SSEP Mission 4 studies, are planned to launch on the next Cygnus, currently scheduled for December.

SSEP student flight team members and fifth grade science teachers from Willis, Texas, begin setting up for their ground truth experiment. (Credit:  SSEP)
SSEP student flight team members and fifth grade science teachers from Willis, Texas, begin setting up for their ground truth experiment. (Credit: SSEP)

In addition to the five Mission 3 studies, Falcon I investigations also include two experiments that flew on previous missions. The tests use NanoRacks Fluids Mixing Enclosures (FMEs), also called “MixStix,” as mini labs to conduct the studies. The student flight experiment teams conceived the following topics for space station research as part of Falcon I:

What is the Effect of Farming in Microgravity Using Hydroponics, and How is it Different from Plants Grown on Earth Using the Same Method?
This study looks at how well lentil seeds grow in microgravity in a nutrient rich solution—hydroponics—rather than traditional soil. The investigation was submitted by grade 8, Alpine Public School, Alpine, N.J.

The Effect of Microgravity on Chryseobacterium Aquaticum Growth
This study tests the impact of spaceflight on the bacteria Chryseobacterium Aquaticum. These bacteria are known to survive harsh conditions on Earth and may aid plant health in space due to the ability to discourage fungus while producing enzymes good for growth. The investigation was submitted by grade 8, Lime Kiln Middle School, Howard County, Va.

The Effects of Microgravity on Eggshells and Vinegar
The goal of this study is to examine if eggshells disintegrate faster in vinegar while in space than on Earth. Eggshells are like teeth and students theorize they will have faster degeneration in microgravity. Studies related to tooth enamel can contribute to developing better dental products. This investigation was submitted by grade 8, Howard Phifer Middle School, Pennsauken, N.J.

Germination of Cabbage Seed
This study looks at the Savoy cabbage (Brassica oleracea var. sabauda) seed and how it germinates in microgravity. This nutrient-rich plant is one the students feel would be a good candidate to grow as food for astronauts during long-duration space exploration. These young scientists theorize the seeds will grow in the space station environment. The investigation was submitted by grade 5, A.R. Turner, C.C. Hardy, and Parmley Elementary Schools, Willis, Texas.

Fibroblast Division in Microgravity
This study was inspired by microgravity-simulated ground tests showing that cells divide slower in reduced gravity. Testing uses fibroblast cells, which are key to wound healing. This study may help increase the understanding of the rate of cell division in space. The investigation was submitted by grade 11, San Marino High School, San Marino, Calif.

Effect of Microgravity on the Antibacterial Resistance of P. aeruginosa
The student study into the bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa was first flown on SSEP Mission 1. Bacteria are known to be more virulent—likely to cause infection—in microgravity; students will measure the impact of antibiotics on both orbital and ground samples of these resistant bacteria. This investigation was submitted by Carver Elementary, Valentine Elementary, Huntington Middle and San Marino High School via the San Marino Unified School District, San Marino, Calif.

The Rate of Oxidation in a Microgravity Environment
Originally part of Mission 2, this study looks at oxidation rates of iron and copper in microgravity. The students theorize that oxidation rates will slow in space, and they selected this experimentation topic because of the application of such findings to both building materials on Earth and metals used in space exploration. The investigation was submitted by grades 10-11, Lebanon High School, Russell County, Va.

SSEP is a program of NCESSE in the U.S. and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education internationally. It is enabled through a strategic partnership with NanoRacks LLC of Houston, working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the use of the space station as a National Laboratory, managed by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). SSEP is the first pre-college Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education program that is both a U.S. national initiative and implemented as an in-orbit commercial space venture.

A Fluids Mixing Enclosure (FME) Payload Box containing up to 24 FMEs.(Credit: NanoRacks)
A Fluids Mixing Enclosure (FME) Payload Box containing up to 24 FMEs.(Credit: NanoRacks)

Now that Expedition 37 Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of the Russian Federal Space Agency and Flight Engineers Karen Nyberg of NASA and Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency have safely returned to the ground along with the Falcon I studies, SSEP participants look to upcoming missions.

“SSEP is a truly remarkable STEM education program that immerses hundreds of students in each participating community in every facet of real research,” said Goldstein. “SSEP has 23 experiments flying in December on the first operational flight of Cygnus.”

It is not surprising that SSEP keeps a literal countdown clock on their website to track these missions to answer students’ scientific curiosities. Upcoming SSEP flights include those for Missions 4, 5 and 6. Mission 4 is scheduled to fly in late fall 2013, while Mission 5 is tentatively planned for spring 2014. Communities and schools interested in sending their own research into orbit for experimentation aboard the space station can still inquire into Mission 6 participation until Nov. 20. 

These industrious young scientists will not only gain motivation for their future careers from this inquiry-based learning, but they also will have a chance to contribute to the body of knowledge in their respective areas of research. SSEP offers a chance to share these results with fellow students and the public at its annual summer conference in Washington at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Presentations are archived on YouTube by the museum as a way to highlight and inspire student interest in space-based research.