Teens' heads in the stars as experiments head to space

Cecilia Padilla, 16, holds up the space-ready tube. At the International Space Station, an astronaut will release the clamp on the acid so it can spill into the compartment that holds the Aleve. Twelve hours later, the second clamp will be released and the antacid will stop the reaction.
Cecilia Padilla, 16, holds up the space-ready tube. At the International Space Station, an astronaut will release the clamp on the acid so it can spill into the compartment that holds the Aleve. Twelve hours later, the second clamp will be released and the antacid will stop the reaction. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 04, 2013

How many teenagers does it take to fill a test tube?

If that test tube is going from Downingtown to outer space, the count is seven.

One to hold the tube. Three or four to measure and dispense precise quantities of ingredients, and the rest to advise and interject spirited commentary.

It took well over an hour, but you can hardly blame the 10th graders from Downingtown STEM Academy for taking their time. Their test tube contained an experiment scheduled to take off for the International Space Station on Dec. 17, and they had one shot to get it right.

Just try chopping up a tablet of Aleve to get a piece that measures exactly 20 milligrams. Not so easy, as Christina Murray and her teammates in blue-rimmed safety goggles discovered.

"We got the piece! Who-oo!" she exulted when the deed was finally done.

The goal of the group's experiment, assembled Nov. 21, is to see if extended-release medications last longer in outer space. Their tube will travel aboard a commercial rocket, along with experiments from 22 other school districts and communities across the country.

Do bacteria grow differently in space? Does iron rust faster? And what about bones and their ability to absorb calcium? These are among the questions the various schools seek to answer.

Astronauts follow students' instructions to conduct the experiments - say, by mixing ingredients - and the results are shipped back for analysis. Pennsauken schools already have taken part in two such missions.

"It was outside the box," said Michael Ostroff, science supervisor for the Pennsauken district. "Outside the normal science classroom."

Try 220 miles outside. The station is an ideal lab for studying the effects of microgravity.

But do not be fooled by that term, as the force of Earth's gravity is actually not much less aboard the space station. The reason things seem weightless is because the station is technically in free fall as it orbits the planet - giving astronauts a continuous version of the sensation you get upon plunging down from the top of a roller coaster.

The student experiments are part of a program run by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, a Maryland-based nonprofit, in partnership with NanoRacks, a Houston-based company that has an arrangement with NASA to ship commercial and academic research to the space station.

The price per school team is $21,500, typically supplied by a mix of local and national donors, some of them solicited by officials at the nonprofit. Commercial rates for shipping experiments are higher. If that sounds steep, consider that the overall trip costs hundreds of millions.

Each student team took part in a local competition to get its experiment aboard the station, writing proposals much as professional scientists might do to secure a grant.

At the Downingtown academy, a science magnet school, faculty judges winnowed 75 proposals to three. Final winners at all schools were picked by an expert panel convened by the nonprofit.

The winning Downingtown team has eight members. (One missed out on assembling the test tube due to a prior commitment.) Only in ninth grade when they submitted their plan, they beat out older students with clear writing.

"The ability to communicate clearly what they wanted to do was really important," said Justin Staub, a social studies teacher who helped judge. "Some of the older kids overdid it."

The group's test tube contains a small amount of simulated stomach acid, sealed off from the rest of the container's contents by a plastic clamp. Astronauts will open one clamp to mix the acid with the Aleve. After 12 hours, they will open a second clamp to add an antacid to the mix, thereby arresting the process.

On Earth, all of the Aleve would be gone after 12 hours, a fact the group seeks to confirm with similar experiments in Downingtown. In space, will some of the medication be left?

The students will have to wait two months for results, which are shipped back on a Russian craft. But in the meantime, Downingtown science curriculum leader Eric Daney is trying to arrange a student trip to watch the rocket launch from a pad in Wallops Island, Va.

Talk about seeing your experiment take flight.


tavril@phillynews.com

215-854-2430

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