Months ago, SAS Eye journalists Ji Yun Ok and Jennifer Jung sat down with the SpaceLab team, a group of six SAS students, who created an experiment that to test radiation levels in space using strands of melanin. If their hypothesis is proven true, NASA will genetically modify plants to produce more melanin to make growing plants in the conditions of space easier. Last semester, after their first interview with The Eye, their engineering model was approved by NASA through the Bhattacharya Space Enterprise program. Just a few weeks ago, the SpaceLab team received exciting news: their experiment is headed for the International Space Station.
“It’s crazy to think that something I engineered, something I even touched, is going into space.” says Madeline Smith, the only sophomore on the team.
“I’ve always dreamed of being a biotechnologist or astrophysicist, but more simply, I’ve always loved learning about space. This experiment helps me in both fields because it was a biological experiment that used professional techniques. And, most importantly, it will be in space!”
“I joined the SpaceLab team after Mr. Millar told me about it. It’s a really small group of people, so naturally the six of us have grown very close over these months. We’ve all learned how to collaborate and encourage each other when we hit one of our many challenges along the way. I’d say that this was one of the hardest but most rewarding things I have done. I’ve really poured all of my heart and energy into this project.”
Madeline recalls the group treating her “no different from the rest” despite the fact that she was the only sophomore. She never felt bullied into accepting certain ideas or teased for her newbie status by fellow members, but they still enjoyed a genuinely light atmosphere of comradery and peer support.” According to Madeline, “We wouldn’t have been able to get through it without having some laughs. I think the work was so serious and intricate that our joking around helped burn off some of the intensity. At the end of the day, this was one of the hardest yet most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”
The experiment will test the survival of melanin, shown in the picture below, in the conditions of space. The group describes their experiment as ‘very simple’, however, it’s simplicity would be key to making it succeed. Below is an image of the final experiment capsule design. It contains a biocapsule, PCB, camera, two pumps, two broth bags, and a few wires.
“The purpose of the entire capsule is to hold our experiment and when connected to the larger micro lab, our experiment will begin after four hours. The purpose of the biocapsule is to hold the bacteria, it essentially works as a small petri dish where our bacteria grows inside of it. The purpose of the PCB is to hold our two LED UV lights and it is the connection between the hardware aspect and software aspect. The camera will be the ultimate provider of our data as it will take a picture of the biocapsule in regular intervals, and over time we will be able to see whether the bacteria is growing or not. The two pumps are each connected to a broth bag and a motor so that the broth can be pumped into the biocapsule. The broth bags hold the broth that feeds the bacteria so it can grow on its own. The wires transfer the elections from the micro lab to the motors and camera.”
Earlier in the process, the group had a few challenges, especially when the broth bag that stored nutrient broth for bacteria had started to leak, causing a pump to stop working. However, despite their challenges, the group has succeeded in landing their experiment a spot on the ISS. Even now, they are still at work, building a replica of the original capsule for a control experiment.
In the podcast down below, I visit Maddy Smith and Junior Annie Kim in the Maker Space to ask them about their experience working on this project, as they simultaneously build on their broth bags for the control experiment.
We wish the entire team (and the experiment itself) the best of luck as SAS projects hours of hard work, problem-solving, and a good amount of faith into space.