Gilbert students team with NASA for plant experiment

December 5th, 2017 | by Santan Sun
Gilbert students team with NASA for plant experiment
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By Melody Birkett

Five high school students representing Gilbert stood by at NASA’S Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia recently. They were awaiting the NASA commercial cargo provider, Orbital ATK Cygnus Spacecraft, to launch its eighth mission to the International Space Station.

The launch was special to them because the spacecraft was carrying their science experiment. Devised over many months, the experiment will evaluate the growth of micro clovers in microgravity and how nitrogen deposited in the soil can be used to grow additional plants in space.

But at the site, the blast-off was more immediately exciting to the teens.

Devin Askue, 16, a junior at Mesquite High School, said there were “no words” to describe it.

“It was so loud. We were two miles away, and it felt like a small earthquake. It was crazy. It was beautiful. It was my first rocket launch experience, and I was in awe,” he said.

“It was amazing how you could literally see the rocket fly off, and you couldn’t hear anything until a couple of seconds later because of sound traveling,” said Ian Anderson, 14, a freshman at Mountain Ridge High School in the Deer Valley School District who hopes to become a NASA engineer.

“The sound just rattles your bones; it was amazing,” he added.

The science experiment is among three from students around the country selected as part of the nonprofit Higher Orbits’ mission of promoting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

Orbital ATK was one of the sponsors of the Go For Launch competition at Mesquite High School. (Southwest Airlines allowed the team and a parent to fly to Baltimore and back for free.)

“The winning experiment from the Go For Launch event was chosen to go to the space station out of all the ones that were sponsored,” said astronaut Frank Culbertson, president of The Space Systems Group at Orbital ATK.

Culbertson has been part of the space program for 33 years – since 1984 – and has flown into space three times.

He had the chance to meet the students. “They definitely have a great future ahead of them,” he said. “They clearly all like science, technology and math, and they’re all very motivated, very intelligent and very bright. It’s a lot of fun to watch them work and to come up with their ideas.”

Culbertson said the team was creative and exhibited a lot of teamwork. He said their experiment was selected because it “has a lot of scientific value and viability, and it was worth doing.”

If the micro clover experiment works, “it could also be a good food source for the colonization and fertilization of Mars,” said Askue, who hopes to be an aerospace engineer.

The team picked micro clovers over peanut plants during the course of the experimentation.

“We originally designed this to be used with peanut plants, but due to the size of our cube lab… that turned out to be smaller than we thought, we ended up switching our experiment to use micro clovers,” said Abigail Youngker, 15, a student at Casteel High School in Queen Creek and the only girl on the team.

“Micro clovers are still nitrogen fixed, so our outcome in the experiment will be unchanged,” she added.

“Hopefully, if it works as well as we think it will, NASA will use peanuts next time and see if that works, because that could also provide a good food source from us,” Askue said.

The results of the team, which calls itself the “Saguaro Snakes,” are expected within a month.

“They may get interim results as the experiment goes along. I’m not sure how much data they’ll be able to transmit to them, but eventually, they’ll get a good set of data and can tell how well the plants grew and what the chemistry was,” Culbertson said.

The experiment will be executed within the newly installed Tango Lab, operated by Space Tango inside the International Space Station.

Nicolas Jepsen, 17, moved to Henderson, Nevada, after contributing to the experiment and attends Coronado High School.

“Here we are high school kids with a bunch of people who have Ph.D.s, and they’re putting so much effort to getting something onto the ISS,” Jepsen said. “It’s just an extremely humbling experience… We’re getting something into space, and we’re not even in college yet.”

He recalled he had an interest in space exploration from the outset. “When I was a kid, I remember going outside and watching the stars with my very small telescope. And now, I’m getting a step closer every day to actually being, not an astronaut, but having a career in space, having something in space.”

Jepsen, who wants to study astrophysics and help design rockets one day, said it was “an amazing opportunity… I’m so thankful for those who provided it.”

Culbertson said he admired the students.

“I learn a lot from them,” he said. “That’s one of the fun things of doing these programs… The kids always come up with something unique and something people haven’t thought of before. And just watching the light bulb go on and have them come up with some creative ideas is inspiring to me.”

The astronaut said the experiment is important for other reasons as well.

“We have to keep inspiring the next generation or we’re going to lose our leadership in technology, which includes space exploration,” he said.

“So it’s very important to get the kids engaged in things like this, whether it’s science and technology, or art, or music or history or whatever it is,” he added.

“The more the parents, the mentors, the teachers, the workforce gets involved with the next generation and their schools, the better they’re going to do in keeping our world safe and keeping this country the leader that it is in all these areas.”

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