McAllen ISD IB Programme students’ space experiment ready for liftoff

A project by McAllen Independent School District students will be launched into space next week. It’s one of only 21 selected from across the entire North American continent.  Three students Sabrina Benitez, Sofia Escobar and Juan Pablo Flanagan from McAllen ISD’s International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme at Lamar Academy conceptualized and produced a scientific proposal that will achieve realization on the International Space Station hovering above the Earth.

The scheduled launch date currently scheduled for 9:01 a.m. CT on Saturday, February 18 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The results will be shipped back to Earth in March. Students will conduct the same experiment on Earth (under gravity conditions) during the month while it is conducted in space. The results will be compared.

Progress on the ISS can be monitored on the SSEP website.

They wanted to know if you can grow tomatoes on Mars.  A mountain of research over six weeks resulted in a 15-page proposal.

With a steady succession of landers on Mars since the mid-1990s, data on the planet’s geology and weather has increased dramatically. Revelations of the presence of water on the red planet sparked the idea. Finding “Martian” soil was a bit of a problem though.

“There was a volcano in Hawaii that had a very similar composition to the soil on Mars so we selected that one,” Flanagan said.  “We actually got a hold of it and spoke to the company.”

A love for science brought them together.  Benitez aspires to become a doctor, while Escobar plans to pursue bio-technology, and Flanagan is considering medical school or law school.

This is a student-driven endeavor. Students began their original projects last fall. The student competition follows the approach used to select research projects designed by professional scientists.

Experiment summary

Their experiment is called “The Effects of Perchlorate on Plant Germination in Simulated Martian Conditions in Microgravity.”

One of NASA’s many current projects, and one the general public has been waiting for ever since we set foot on the Moon, is the human mission to Mars. The recent discovery of liquid water on Mars has increased anticipation of this dream; however, along with water, it has been found that Martian soil contains high levels of magnesium perchlorate — a contaminant toxic to humans. Analyzing the results of the experiment will provide insight into the effects of perchlorate, combined with micro gravity, and how these unfamiliar conditions will affect the possibilities of ever establishing a sustainable colony on Mars. Future manned missions to Mars are in the works and questions about nutrition and sustainability must be answered.

This experiment will give greater understanding of food growth on Mars, a planet with a significantly smaller amount of gravity than Earth. On the ISS, our Type 3 FME mini-lab will contain Martian simulated soil with tomato seeds and distilled water to catalyze the germination. After twelve days, a solution of 10% Neutral Buffered Formalin will be added to the soil in order to halt the growth and “freeze” any viable data so that we may be able to observe the tomato sprout on Earth and compare the results to the control groups in order to find how plants that have evolved to fit Earth’s conditions will grow and survive in conditions very different from our own.

Art contest for mission patches

In addition to science and math, art became an integral part of this endeavor. McAllen ISD held a mission patch design competition – one for middle school and one for high school students.

McAllen ISD was excited to have engaged hundreds of students in their first Mission Patch Art Competitions for SSEP Mission 9 to ISS. Nearly 1,200 students submitted almost 1,900 patch designs to their art instructors. A panel of three judges selected the two winners.

The middle school winner is seventh grader Grace Kelly of Morris Middle School, and high school winner is ninth grader Travis Zigler of Lamar Academy.

SSEP background

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) was launched in June 2010 by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in partnership with NanoRacks, LLC. It is a remarkable U.S. national Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education initiative that gives typically 300+ students across a community the ability to design and propose real experiments to fly in low Earth orbit, first aboard the final flights of the Space Shuttle, and then on the International Space Station — America’s newest National Laboratory.

Since the inception, 13 SSEP flight opportunities have been undertaken with 142 participating communities in the US and Canada.

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (or SSEP) is a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in the U.S. and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education internationally. It is enabled through a strategic partnership with DreamUp PBC and NanoRacks LLC, which are working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory. SSEP is the first pre- college STEM education program that is both a U.S. national initiative and implemented as an on-orbit commercial space venture.