Central students' algae experiment headed for International Space Station

2013-08-11T00:00:00Z 2013-08-12T06:24:12Z Central students' algae experiment headed for International Space StationBy ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

They're going to space. Well, their algae is going to space. 

A group of Billings Central Catholic High School students have designed and built an experiment to test how well algae grows — and how much carbon dioxide it consumes — in a zero-gravity environment. 

"Doing this stuff has certainly made biology more interesting," said Stuart Dilts, who will be a senior at Central when the school year starts.

The rest of the group graduated in May and will be headed to Montana State University in Bozeman. 

The project began as part of the NASA HUNCH program, a science experiment competition aimed at motivating high school students to design, test and create hardware for space exploration. 

The group from Central — James Dilts, Kylee Hrban, Nathan Heldt and Laura Westwood — decided they'd tackle the problem of oxygen. So far, the best way to have breathable oxygen in space is to bring it in big canisters. 

That's expensive and labor-intensive. 

The students figured, if they could find a way to produce oxygen in space, that might mitigate the problem. So they focused on algae. 

"It's a single-cell organism," said James Dilts, Stuart's older brother. "It's not a plant."

Still, like big plants, algae uses photosynthesis to produce food and, in turn, expels a lot of oxygen. And as a single-celled organism, it could grow small in a petri dish, which is where the group started.

Eventually, they designed small plastic boxes filled with the nutrient-rich gel found in petri dishes and grew the algae suspended inside the gel. That solved the watering problem.

Water is tricky in zero gravity and doesn't always work like it should when placed in pumps and other devices.

Rather than try to solve the problem of how to water the algae, they decided to bypass it altogether and use the gel, Westwood said.

The students' experiment will join dozens of others on the International Space Station. However, it will be just one of two high school-designed experiments on board.

The students have been working on the project for nearly a year. The first goal was simply to have it qualify to fly aboard NASA's aircraft that simulates a zero-gravity environment.

It made the cut and spent an afternoon on the plane. The data they got from running the experiment there was real and noteworthy.

The students were required to present their findings to a panel of 20 scientists. The reaction from the panel was nearly as exciting as learning they had earned their ticket to the International Space Station.

The scientists told the students they had designed an experiment with "legitimate scientific value." With that came the clearance to go to space, but the students would have to pay for it. 

They successfully earned a grant from CASIS, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, which governs the International Space Station. 

It costs about $10,000 a pound to send something to space and CASIS awarded the Central students $30,000 — just enough to cover their 3-pound boxed experiment. 

Once in space, the experiment has to be totally autonomous. It has to run itself. So the students had to build the electronics to run the experiment and write the computer code that would govern it and beam the data back to earth.

That's one of the reasons the experiment focuses on carbon dioxide consumption. CO2 sensors are considerably smaller and less complex than oxygen sensors. So rather than measure the oxygen the algae produces in zero gravity, they'll track the carbon dioxide it absorbs.

"This is the first time this has ever been done," James Dilts said. 

To build the experiment and to get it to work, the group had to learn mechanical and electrical engineering, computer programming and laboratory biology.

It was the computer programming that connected the students with Andy Wildenberg, an associate professor of computer science at Rocky Mountain College. 

He's been working with the group of students all summer. And he's impressed.

"They can figure out what needs to be done and then they do it," he said. 

Most importantly, he said, they've learned how to fail. Each piece of the experiment has gone through a number of iterations as they've worked through flaws and setbacks. 

"We've taken away a lot of experience," James Dilts said.

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