A space odyssey
By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Some scientists wait their entire careers for a chance to perform an experiment in the microgravity of space.
But next spring, students at Waiakea Intermediate School will send off an experiment of their own design and watch as it is launched into the heavens, destined for the International Space Station.
Waiakea is one of 17 schools across the country participating in the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education’s Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. It is the first school in the state to take part, said science teacher Tabitha Booth, who has worked to involve the entire school in the endeavor.
“It’s about getting kids to experience what real scientists experience when working in the real world,” she said Tuesday. “They have to write a proposal, and only the best proposals are chosen, because using equipment, such as a big telescope, costs sometimes thousands of dollars.”
Flying an experiment to the International Space Station certainly falls into the category of expensive science, she said, and one of the biggest challenges thus far has been to obtain the $19,950 required to secure a slot on the SpaceX Dragon, the privately-owned, reusable cargo capsule contracted by NASA to resupply the space station and ferry experiments to and from the Earth. The Dragon is scheduled to take off in April, carrying, among other things, the experiments constituting Mission 3 of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program.
With the help of educator and public information officer Christine Copes at the Gemini Observatory, which hosts the successful Journey Through the Universe program, the school appealed to area businesses and groups for donations to fund the trip. The donors included the County of Hawaii, the Thirty Meter Telescope, Big Island Toyota and Ben Franklin/Ace Hardware. Matching funds were also provided by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space and the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education.
“We’ve been so lucky to receive the support from the community,” said Waiakea Intermediate Principal Lloyd Matsunami. “People like David De Luz (owner of Big Island Toyota) and others, they really helped … This is a demanding and stressful time in American education. … This is an opportunity to change lives.”
In addition to the prohibitive costs associated with going to the space station, students are also limited by the room available on board the cargo ship. A single, small white tube, not much bigger than a test tube and weighing less than a pound when full, is the only space they’ll have, Booth said.
“It’s tough to fit everything in there,” she said. “And, you’ve also got to figure out how you will measure your results, because you can’t see through them.”
Many of the ideas students at the school have been coming up with involve mixing chemicals and other items together in the test tubes, and then observing their states upon being returned to Earth after experiencing microgravity.
Zoi Nakamura, 13, and her partner, Kiani Nishimoto, 13, would like to fill the tube with corn starch and a smaller glass tube filled with water. When it comes time to perform the experiment, an astronaut would bend the outer tube, cracking the glass tube inside, causing the water to interact with the corn starch — much like how one begins the chemical reaction in a glowstick.
“When it comes back, we’re going to look at its texture, its viscosity, and its stickiness,” Nakamura said.
When mixed together in a ratio of about 2 to 1, corn starch and water take on a unique property, whereby it can be both a solid and a liquid. They’re excited to see how low gravity will affect that property, Nishimoto said.
“We’re hoping it will be in a similar condition,” she said.
Meanwhile, 13-year-olds Lester Iwata, Brandon Yamamoto, Shon Katahira and Dylan Hong are looking into sending up sodium chloride, or salt, in a solution.
“We’re going to measure its color, its shape, its density, its morphology, its ability to dissolve,” said Iwata. “We want to see how the shape of the crystals form.”
Sixth-grader Jasmine Lewis is suggesting cracking open a vial of ginger ale to see what will happen to its flavor and its carbonation.
“If it tastes really delectable, I’m going to request that they (the astronauts) make a lot more of it,” she said with a smile.
Rysa Dela Cruz, 11, would like to see what happens when baking soda and vinegar are mixed in outer space.
“I would feel really bad,” she said, if the reaction blew up the space station. “But at least NASA would know not to do that again.”
Meanwhile, fellow sixth-grader Typhanie Marr would like to see how floating in microgravity affects the growth of mold on a piece of bread.
“I want to see if it grows differently than on Earth, and if it grows more,” she said.
Some students are choosing to submit proposals individually, while others are working in teams, Booth said. All told, she’s expecting somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 proposals. Next Friday, those proposals will be whittled down, with three finalists eventually being sent to the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education in Washington, D.C., where finalists from each school will be selected on Nov. 29.
Meanwhile, during the early-morning hours of Nov. 15, students will be given the opportunity to come to the Waiakea Intermediate library to participate in a live teleconference with astronauts aboard the space station and ask them questions about life in microgravity.
Waiakea and Hilo complex students in all grade levels will be able to get in on the excitement as part of a companion contest to design two mission patches for the flight, Booth added.
“This is a chance for everyone to participate,” she said.
While the main costs associated with participating in the flight have been covered, the school still needs help to fund air travel and accommodations for the proposal finalist selections in Washington, D.C.
For more information about the program, visit ssep.ncesse.org.
Email Colin M. Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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