Spaceflight Experiment Success!

Middle schoolers design winning science experiment for the ISS.

May 1, 2021

Ansh Kumar

Staff Writer at Motus News

On February 11, an experiment no farther than 200 miles (322 kilometers) had gone down. Not thought up by astronauts or professional scientists, but science-savvy 8th graders! This spectacular trio comes from Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School in Wisconsin. 

Now, why would these kids be having their experiment conducted by astronauts in space?

Good question! And the answer to that would be in thanks to the SSEP competition. A competition in which students from grade 5 up to the college level can create experiments to be conducted in reduced gravity areas such as in the International Space Station. (ISS)

SSEP has a wide range of participants ranging from Brazil, all the way to Canada! Evan Heath, Kane LaRonge, and Thomas White (the winners of the SSEP) weren't going to have their experiment go to the space station all that easy, yet they persevered and did. 

So how did they get to this glorious moment?

Let's start from the top, and understand how the "Fish Egg Development in Space" experiment originated. The initial prompt. Many young scientists were to mimic what professional scientists do: write a formal proposal that explains what question the experiment will aim to answer, how the experiment will address that question, and what the experiment procedure should be.

A short excerpt from the proposal reads: "The investigation compares the hatching and development of fish in microgravity* to their hatching and development in gravity. If fish can develop in space, it would expand the food supply available for space travel."

Kane wanted to give astronauts more protein, and so he did a plentiful amount of research and hatched the idea to his team. (Pun very well intended) They liked it well enough and got to work, meticulously crafting questions and ideas to maximize the potential this egg-cellent idea had to offer. It most clearly did, given I am writing this. 

Were there fellow successors or competitors?

As much as one could wish for a close, tense fight for the golden spot; surprisingly wasn’t any. Anticlimactic? Perhaps, but I would assure you that all others who partook still had good ideas and experiments; and the winners most likely hold no complaints. Better luck next year.

On that note, there was an additional engineer-focused branch that a 5th and 7th grader had won. Unfortunately, there isn’t an awful lot of information to share in regards to them, however the actual program, as an extension from another part of the competition, students designed mission patches that reflect their community and its participation in SSEP. LCO selected two patches, designed by 5th grader Amilia Robertson and 7th grader Preston Sullivan, to travel to the space station.

The experiment and patches from LCO, along with those from 31 other communities, traveled to the ISS on a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft. The craft was launched on December 6, 2020, and docked at the space station on the following day.

What happened with their experiment?

Astronauts aboard the ISS are now conducting the trios experiment, with the same things to happen on Earth. This way, they could compare the development of the fish in microgravity versus Earth's gravity. The elements returned from space in January 2021 and are now back with the students. With this phase complete, they will now analyze the data to conclude whether gravity has affected the fish.

Although it is rather unfortunate Evan, Kane, and Thomas weren't aboard the ISS, they still were respected in their work and even had a designated lab for their experiment. What the study reveals could help develop the chances of humans residing and operating in space.

I found this story rather interesting, and it made me consider and want to look at my ideas for a potential mission to head to the ISS. I have drawn a blank. That goes to show how intelligent these guys were. Involved as well! Nothing I could replicate by any means. I wonder if you, dear reader, have any thoughts, opinions, or comments on their story or even my writing! Perhaps an idea or two as well. I'd love to spark a conversation with any who would like to discuss. 

*Microgravity — The term micro-g environment is more or less synonymous with the terms weightlessness and zero-g, but with an emphasis on the fact that g-forces are never exactly zero, just very small.