Students at Northland Preparatory Academy are thanking their lucky stars that a mission patch was the only part of their $21,500 microgravity science experiment that went up in flames during a rocket explosion on the Virginia coast.
Student-designed science experiments from 18 U.S. schools were among the cargo destroyed when an unmanned Antares rocket operated by Orbital Sciences Corp. exploded at 6:22 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday, just seconds after lifting off from NASA’s flight facility on Wallops Island, Va. The projects were supposed to go to the International Space Station for the sixth mission of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education’s Student Spaceflight Experiments Program.
NPA eighth-graders Dylan Wachowski, Asa Avelar and Ethan Willis sent their own experiment to the I.S.S. in July through the same program. The package containing their project had just returned to earth when they heard the news about Tuesday’s explosion.
"We literally got this (package) in the morning and four hours later, we hear that the one with their mission patch had exploded,” said NPA science teacher Kaci Heins. “It was really a roller coaster day.”
The one piece of the project that did not make it onto the July space flight was the mission patch designed by NPA sophomore Juliana Berglund-Brown. She designed it last year in art class.
“I’m really interested in science, but I also love art,” Berglund-Brown said. “I thought this would be a good way to combine the two.”
The colorful badge, which depicts an astronaut carrying an NPA Spartans flag with Earth in the background, was finally supposed to be carried to the I.S.S. Tuesday in honor of the school’s successful mission to space. Instead, it was lost in the Orbital Sciences rocket explosion.
“It was pretty upsetting because I was so excited that my artwork was going up to space,” Berglund-Brown said.
Lowell Observatory Director Jeff Hall, who served as co-director of the Flagstaff side of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program alongside Heins, said professional scientists go through a similar experience after failed launches.
“It’s a really good example of what’s at stake,” Hall said. “All the effort you put into it, and this really happens.”
Officials with the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education have already informed Berglund-Brown that she will get another chance to send her patch to the I.S.S. on its next mission. She said she will have to decide in the next few days whether to send a digital copy or recreate the original badge from scratch.
“I don’t know when it will go up,” Heins said. “It might go up with Space X or it might go up with another Orbital (Sciences rocket). We have no idea at this moment how it will actually get up there, but we know it will get into space eventually.”
Meanwhile, Wachowski, Avelar and Willis will get to work analyzing the results of their experiment. The students were able to send a small apparatus containing water, ethanol and 10 onion seeds to the I.S.S. for three months to see whether plants can grow in the microgravity of space. Their experiment beat more than 100 other student proposals that were reviewed by professional scientists around Flagstaff in the same way that proposals submitted to NASA or the National Science Foundation would be reviewed.
“The idea behind the program is to give everybody a glimpse into real-world science and exploration,” Hall said.
The school then had to raise $21,500 through community donations, the Chamber of Commerce and a $10,000 W. L. Gore STEM grant to purchase a spot for the experiment on the rocket that launched in July.
“We’re just thankful to be living in a town like this that cheers STEM on,” Heins said.
On Friday, Wachowski, Avelar and Willis will open the vacuum-sealed package containing their experiment for the first time inside a Northern Arizona University laboratory. They will then spend the day carefully preparing samples from the hopefully sprouting onion seeds used in their experiment, and looking for signs of cell replication under a $100,000 microscope with the help of NAU biology professor Aubrey Funke.
The rest of the samples will be sent to Translational Genomics Research Institute North, where scientists will use electrophoresis to looks for signs of DNA breakage in the onion cells.
Willis said the group’s hypothesis is that the lack of gravity in space would make it difficult for the onion cells to grow. If the cells do grow, however, he said there would be implications for future space exploration.
“Then we’d know we could grow food in space,” Willis said.
Avelar added that his group felt lucky that their experiment, which took almost a year to create, made it to space safely rather than suffering the fate of the experiments on Tuesday’s failed rocket flight.
“It feels really good,” Avelar said. “It’s just such a great experience. Hopefully, people in future years could also do it to get the experience. You feel super proud of yourself for accomplishing something like this.”