Andy Wildenberg, associate professor of computer science, 406.238.7380, andy.wildenberg@rocky.edu
RMC Media Team, 406.657.1105, media@rocky.edu

Photo: Dr. Andy Wildenberg (left) and Kobi Hudson (right) [credit: Dave M. Shumway]

RMC student Kobi Hudson receives top undergraduate award from Montana Space Grant Consortium

BILLINGS, December 2, 2014 – The Montana Space Grant Consortium (MSGC) has announced that the 2014-2015 Hiscock Memorial Award will be given to Rocky Mountain College student Kobi Hudson as part of a research project to test the growth of algae in zero gravity on the International Space Station. The award includes $1,500 that can be used for travel, research supplies, tuition, or other educational purposes.

Hudson is a 19-year-old junior at RMC, majoring in computer science, mathematics, and physics. He started taking classes at Rocky during his junior year at Billings Senior High School. Hudson currently holds the record at Billings Senior High School for the most college credits accumulated while in high school. With 26 credits, Hudson had enough credits to be classified as a sophomore at RMC at the time he graduated from high school.

Hudson received the Hiscock Memorial Award for his proposal to design a test structure for a NanoRacks NanoLabs enclosure to test the growth of algae in zero gravity on the International Space Station (ISS). Hudson's proposal is part of a project called AGAR (Algae Growth and Remediation), which was started as part of NASA's HUNCH (High School Students United with NASA to Create Hardware) initiative to create hardware. This initiative consists of a competition for young science students to develop novel ideas and experiments.

The AGAR experiment revolves around growing algae, which converts carbon dioxide to oxygen. "If there is a way to have algae producing oxygen in space stations, it would be an immense benefit," said Dr. Andy Wildenberg, RMC associate professor of computer science.

While algae grows well in water here on Earth, trying to grow it in water in a zero-gravity environment causes some complications. Therefore, the AGAR project proposes growing algae in agar, the substance used in Petri dishes.

"This is the first time that growing algae in a solid media will have ever been done in zero gravity," said Hudson. "When the AGAR project runs, it will show how well algae can remediate carbon dioxide into oxygen in zero gravity. If the algae remediates carbon dioxide well enough, it could open the doors to long-term manned space flight and could be revolutionary in the ways manned space flight is thought of."

However, the algae has to be contained in something small, compact, and monitored from Earth. After nearly a year, students designed a 1-kilogram modularized aluminum box (NanoLabs enclosure), which could house the algae gel. Sensors were also placed inside of it so that it could be monitored on Earth. Dr. Wildenberg helped students design a computer program that could monitor the algae growth from an orbit 220 miles from Earth.

"During the 2014 fall semester, the team and I managed to develop a final flight structure along with a final design for the algae/agar media that can all run off a USB cable," said Hudson. "Having something that I helped make reach the ISS made me realize how much I love the idea of doing work to help advance the space program."

A panel of NASA scientists has approved the AGAR project, allowing the boxes to be transported to the International Space Station. However, it would cost $10,000 per pound for transportation. The students applied for and were awarded a $30,000 grant from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to cover the transportation costs.

The first launch date for the project is scheduled for June 2015, which will take place in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The AGAR NanoLabs enclosure will be launched on the Space X7, Falcon 9, Dragon X rocket.

“I am so excited to receive this award,” said Hudson. “I plan to put the money from the award back into the project. I hope that it will also allow us enough money to maybe travel down to Florida to watch the launch.”

The Hiscock Memorial Award is given out each fall to an undergraduate or graduate student who has "demonstrated a strong commitment to their educational goals, and proposes the most compelling use of the funds," according to the MSGC. "Hudson's passion for space, research, and serving others shines through his idea. We are proud to support him," said the MSGC Staff and Advisory Board. Hudson is the first computer scientist to win this award.

"The idea of being the first to try this experiment was something that gave me chills," said Hudson. "I was so excited, and still am, that I was part of something that can open the doors to many possibilities."

“At Rocky Mountain College, we give undergraduates the opportunity to do real research. This award for Kobi is validation of that,“ said Dr. Wildenberg.

Hudson will present his project at the MSGC Student Research Symposium in Bozeman, Mont., on April 18, 2015.