Good news! All the algae flown to space on June 21 from Spaceport America survived. Abe Anderson with Sapphire Energy was New Mexico Space Grant’s technical advisor on this flight. He completed the initial analysis on the algae cultures. After the flight, the health and growth rate of the cultures that went to space were compared to cultures that remained on the ground. Some of the experiments leaked during flight and the algae were “disadvantaged”. But, by July 1st, all flown cultures, including the “disadvantaged”, were reproducing similarly to the controls on the ground. There were nine experimental cultures. There were 2 strains of algae tested in two different media, water and modified artificial seawater medium (MASM). The cultures in the MASM grew better than the cultures in water.
Students were asked to propose experiments using algae because NASA is interested in technologies that enable humans to live and work in space. Algae can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere inside the space station. It can also produce crude oil which can be refined into bio-fuels for aviation, another research area of NASA’s. Algae is also non-toxic, inexpensive and can be used by students without much risk to their health. Sapphire donated all the algae we used on this flight.
Bio-fuel research is ongoing at Sapphire Energy. Working with Sapphire helped students and teachers learn how industrial research is conducted. The teams also learned about NASA’s research interests. Sapphire hires many NMSU students; Abe has a Master’s degree from NMSU. The University does research on algae through the Algal Bioenergy Program. It is a centralized effort to coordinate research and economic development opportunities related to fuels made from algae. The teams came up with lots of questions before they designed their experiments. Would algae survive the trip to space? What would be the difference in the survival and reproduction rate of algae in water versus MASM? Since two different strains of algae would be used, would one be heartier? How would we know if the algae that flew grew differently over time, than algae Sapphire uses every day? The teams will determine if they got answers to their questions and submit their final reports by the end of next week.
Students from Camino Real and La Academia Delores Huerta Middle Schools, and Hot Springs High School students designed their own experiments. There were a lot of problems the students had to think about in the design of each experiment. For example, once the rocket leaves the launch pad it spins at a high rate to stay on a straight upward path, like a bullet spins to keep it going straight. Team containers must be sturdy, could not leak and have to operate independently.
There were more complexities as the students found out how experiments are packed for flight. Once built, all experiments are bolted down to a nine inch Plexiglas plate. The plate is attached to the base of a ten inch tall aluminum can which is screwed shut. All the algae experiments, were shipped to Colorado without water or MASM two months before flight. They would be bolted on to the plates then put into two aluminum nine inch cans. The cans then are spun not only to balance them but also test that experiments are securely fastened to the plate. For our algae experiments, NASA put in dummy weight to account for the water and MASM weight. The experiments are then certified and sealed. They are loaded into the rocket two days before flight.
Four or five experiments go into each aluminum can, inside the rocket. Adding water or MASM had to be done two days before flight to start algae growth. As the teams designed their own containers, each had a different process for adding the water and MASA. Liquids could only be added to the algae from tubes. There is an opening the size of a playing card on the side of the rocket to enable access to the experiments. The tubes had to be accessed through this a little opening in the rocket two days before flight.
A GPS beacon on the payload section of the rocket, and radar tracking, helped the recovery team locate the rocket on White Sands Missile Range. Within three hours from launch, the payload section was back at the spaceport where anxious researchers were waiting. We congratulate all the new space scientists, and thank all our volunteers and sponsors. Next launch is scheduled for October 9th.