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NASA clears the re-launch of RMC experiment for the International Space Station

BILLINGS, April 1, 2016 – NASA has granted clearance for RMC’s AGAR (Algae Growth And Remediation) experiment to be launched on the Space X7, Falcon 9, Dragon X rocket on April 8, 2016. Falcon 9 will launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS) to deliver and return cargo for NASA. This will be a second chance for the RMC experiment to reach ISS, after the first attempt on June 28, 2015, failed when the Space X7 exploded shortly after launch.

“We’re very fortunate we’ve been offered this second opportunity, and we have made sure to take advantage of the additional prep time since the first launch to refine and improve our experiment,” said RMC’s Associate Professor of Computer Science Dr. Andy Wildenberg.

This payload to ISS will include RMC’s AGAR project, which began four years ago as part of NASA’s HUNCH (High School Students United with NASA to Create Hardware) initiative to inspire young science students to develop novel ideas and experiments for space exploration.

The student project began under the guidance of Dr. Deb Wines, a biology teacher at Billings Central Catholic High School, and Dr. Florence Gold, a NASA HUNCH Implementation Project Manager/Management POC for Fabrication Schools. The premise behind the student-led experiment was to test the growth of algae in zero gravity.

“What makes this experiment so unique is that this is the first time that growing algae in a solid media will have ever been done in zero gravity,” said Dr. Gold. She described how the AGAR experiment consists of growing algae in agar, a nutrient-rich gel commonly found in petri dishes. Dr. Gold explained that because algae converts carbon dioxide to oxygen there may be a significant benefit to developing ways to produce oxygen in space stations.

“Why is it so valuable? It’s about algae, which has a lot of wonderful uses – remediation of carbon dioxide into oxygen, as a food, and as a source of fuel. Can it grow well in microgravity? If it does, we can apply it to all of these uses,” said Dr. Gold

“We are placing algae in agar and seeing if it will grow in zero gravity,” explained Ayla Grandpre, one of the students working on the project. “To further this experiment, if it works, we hope to see if fruit flies can survive off the oxygen that the algae produces from the flies’ carbon dioxide.”

During a science research symposium in 2012, the project was one of the few selected to go to the ISS. However, the students had to develop a way for the experiment to be autonomous. That was when Dr. Wildenberg began working with the team.

“Because space scientists cannot interact with the hundreds of experiments on the ISS, it was critical to develop an experiment that can run untouched and be monitored from an orbit 220 miles above Earth,” said Dr. Wildenberg. For more than two years, Dr. Wildenberg and students, including RMC students, have worked on implementing the necessary biological research and designing the experimental chamber. To help fund the project, The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) awarded the students with a $30,000 sponsorship to cover the cost of the launch to the ISS.

“This team has been great to work with these past two years,” said Kobi Hudson, one of the RMC students working on the project. Hudson was the recipient of the prestigious William A. Hiscock Memorial Award from the Montana Space Grant Consortium (MSGC) in 2014 for his design of the test structure (NanoRacks NanoLabs enclosure) that houses the experiment to test the growth of algae in zero gravity. 

The NanoLabs enclosure will contain three jars that contain agar. Dr. Wildenberg explained, “Agar is basically jello, but algae can grow in it. NASA likes that because liquids in space are lousy. And NASA cares about growing algae because they spend a lot of money shipping oxygen up to the space station since they can’t convert carbon dioxide (CO2) to oxygen (O2). We hope that if the algae grows up there like it does down here, then it can be made into a unit that converts CO2 to O2.”

Through the AGAR experiment, algae will be grown inside a modularized aluminum box (NanoLabs enclosure), which is a 1-kilogram, 4-by-4-by-6 inch box. The box contains three small plastic jars containing the algae, a temperature sensor, grow lights, a camera, and a memory card to record data.

“I hope that we achieve a minimum goal of the documented growth of algae in AGAR in microgravity,” said Hudson. “I know we all look forward to seeing the first downlink of data. All of our hard work will be well represented in the data we receive. I am excited to keep moving forward with this project and I hope the data gives us a good starting point for the next phase in our mission to examine and perfect the growth of algae in AGAR in microgravity.”

The AGAR experiment will be on the ISS for approximately 3 weeks, during which time, photos of the algae growth and temperature readings will be recorded and monitored from the computer science lab at Rocky Mountain College. After that time, the AGAR project will return to Earth with the Dragon Capsule so the RMC team can take some more precise measurements of algae’s growth.

Dr. Gold from NASA-HUNCH and a number of the student-led team will depart for Cape Canaveral on April 7. Those who plan to attend the launch along with Dr. Gold include Ayla Grandpre (current RMC student), Trevor Hunnes (current RMC student), Erin Burns (’15 graduate), and Gereint Sis (’15 graduate and current RMC Chemistry adjunct professor).