BILLINGS – A science experiment long in the making at Rocky Mountain College will soon soar into space and spend at least a month on the International Space Station.
If it’s successful, the Algae Growth and Remediation Project could one day provide an alternate source of oxygen for astronauts on the space station.
Three of the Rocky students involved in the project and their faculty adviser planned to travel to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the June 28 launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch, which will carry the experiment into space.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity presented and really excited for the space launch,” Gereint Sis said.
Sis graduated from Rocky in December with degrees in biology and chemistry. He is working in Billings and eventually hopes to attend medical school and go into research.
Sis and Erin Burns, who graduated in May with degrees in equestrian studies and biology, worked on the biology side of the experiment. Burns will begin a doctoral program in animal biology this fall at the University of California Davis.
Kobi Hudson, a third-year Rocky student majoring in computer science, math and physics, served as project manager for the experiment. He is employed by Google this summer and wasn't able to attend the launch.
Hudson was involved on the computer science and hardware side of the experiment with Ayla Grandpre. Grandpre, a sophomore, is majoring in computer science and may add chemistry as a second major.
Andy Wildenberg, associate professor of computer science, served as the faculty advisor. The three-year experiment, which got its start at Billings Central Catholic High School, took a lot of time to perfect and went through many iterations before it was ready for space.
To an observer, the final project – “bottles with goop in them, lights to make that grow and a camera to take photographs" – might look simple, Wildenberg said.
“But when you’re working in a tight space with so many electrical and physical constraints, it just has to work because you only get one shot,” he said.
The idea behind the experiment is that algae might have the ability to supply the International Space Station with oxygen and remove carbon dioxide more efficiently than is done now. If so, it could decrease the weight of life support supplies needed in space.
Algae is typically grown in liquid, but that wouldn’t work in the space station's zero-gravity environment. To overcome that problem, the Rocky students developed a process to grow algae embedded in gel-like agar that absorbs water and holds the nutrients algae need to survive.
The project began at Central High as a part of the NASA HUNCH program. The science experiment program is aimed at motivating high school students to design, test and create hardware for space exploration.
A group of Central students got the experiment to the point where it flew aboard NASA’s zero-gravity-simulating aircraft. That led to approval to get the experiment aboard the space station.
Wildenberg worked with the students for a summer, but they graduated and their teacher left. So Wildenberg brought the project to Rocky, where he invited Hudson, Burns, Sis and Grandpre to join in.
“It’s a singular opportunity,” he said. “For a school our size to be putting something into space is just fantastic.”
The experiment will be guaranteed a slot in the space station’s specialized NanoRack, a piece of equipment about the size of a Coke machine that holds up to 96 experiments, for at least one month.
Once a week, a laptop on the space station will read the information produced by each experiment and transmit it to Earth.
“So once a week, we’ll get a dump with all the latest photographs,” Wildenberg said.
With so many variables surrounding the experiment, he said, sending the experiment into space comes with a level of anxiety.
“You do everything you can on the ground and then you just have to let it go,” he said.
Burns, who helped develop the protocol to grow algae in agar, said it was a painstaking process. It took about 18 months to nail down.
“I learned a lot about problem-solving and trouble-shooting, and trying to track down the source of a problem instead of the visible effects of it,” Burns said.
Sis focused on how to get the algae to bloom evenly in the agar. The work taught him how to be part of a team.
“I learned how experiments are launched into space, which is a really long process and a lot of paperwork,” he said. “I also figured out how to develop processes.”
Grandpre, who worked on a NASA HUNCH project while a student at Laurel High School, brought her fabrication skills to the experiment. She designed the temperature sensor and some of the wiring.
“I think it’s really cool that something I’m touching is actually going into space,” Grandpre said. “It’s cool that someone from small town Montana can do something like that.”
Grandpre has wanted to work for NASA since childhood. It began when as an elementary student she got to visit the HUNCH program at Laurel High.
“Ever since then it has inspired me, and I think it would be awesome,” she said.
All of the students were looking forward to watching the launch. Their experiment gave them VIP status and the chance to get a closer seat to watch the launch.
The team also got the opportunity to meet with scientists and astronauts at NASA.
“I’m really looking forward to that, almost more than the launch,” Sis said before leaving for the launch. “You get to talk to people in a career field we enjoy so much.”
As for the experiment, the best outcome would be if the algae grows as well in space as it does on Earth, Burns said. That could lead to future experiments and the possibility that one day, oxygen-producing algae could be a permanent resident on the space station.