By Eduardo Barraza
Can growing peanuts in space drastically reduce the need for fertilizer, and provide a ready food source for astronauts to make the long journey to Mars?
A space experiment designed by students at Mesquite High School earlier this year is trying to find out. The experiment consists of testing the nitrogen fixing properties of a peanut plant in micro-gravity by flying it on the International Space Station for 30 days.
The ISS functions as a microgravity and space environment laboratory, where research of this type is conducted, and where crew members carry out experiments in fields like physics, biology and astronomy.
The students’ experiment will be placed in a four-by-four-inch metallic cube, and launched into space on an Antares rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility located in Wallops Island, Virginia on November 10, a target date.
Students who were involved in creating the experiment will collect data remotely with the help of the astronauts aboard.
If successful, Mesquite High’s peanut plant experiment could contribute to preparing the way for the future cultivation of crops for food in space.
The experiment was created in February during a three-day space camp called “Go For Launch!” that involves space exploration as a platfom to launch student involvement in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).
“We had about 40 students participate and compete in a project-based contest where they formed teams, and spent the weekend working with astronauts to develop an experiment,” said Mark Jordan, Mesquite’s engineering and woodworking teacher.
Mesquite hosts this program every year in partnership with Orbital ATK. The aerospace manufacturer and defense industry company sponsors, mentors and works with the students.
This year, one of Mesquite’s teams, the Saguaro Snakes, won both the regional and the national science experiment contests in the Orbital ATK Division, thus qualifying to fly their experiment on the ISS.
Jordan said the students came up with the idea of an experiment based on peanuts due to the amazing nitrogen-fixing properties of these edible seeds.
“When you plant peanuts, they put nitrogen back into the soil, and nitrogen is what every other plant uses as a fertilizer,” Jordan said. “One of the problems that we are going to have when we travel to Mars is not only growing crops when we get there, but also supplying food on the way there.”
Devin Askue, a Mesquite junior student and member of the Saguaro Snakes team that developed the peanut experiment, said the team researched a number of ideas prior to choosing peanuts.
“We looked at peanuts, and we thought it would be a good thing to use them as fertilizer for other plants,” he said.
For Askue, whose goal is to become an aerospace engineer, the experiment as well as winning the regional and national competitions is definitely something that can serve him well in the future.
“I think it opens up opportunities for me and everyone on the team. It will look great on my resume,” he said.
Jordan feels the same way, and thinks that having won the contest is a great experience, since Mesquite students competed against much larger schools and districts.
“Having Mesquite win put us on the map as kind of like a force to be reckoned with, and in the aerospace community as it’s being taught throughout the nation,” he said.
Jordan and four of his students were invited to do a presentation for Go for Launch! at the Project Lead the Way Summit in Orlando, Florida in October. In 2018, Mesquite High will host its annual Go For Launch! camp from March 1-4.
The Go for Launch! program is sponsored by Higher Orbits, a nonprofit that promotes Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.