Arkansas State students send worms into space

JONESBORO, Ark – A small part of Arkansas will soon be orbiting Earth at more than 17,000 miles per hour as students at Arkansas State University rev up their science experiment to aboard the International Space Station.

The experiment is sent to the space station during a nighttime launch on July 14 from a cargo supply ship to the ISS. The cargo will include supplies from the ISS as well as two science projects, one from ASU and one from Stanford students.

The launch will be a milestone in a project that began in 2020 as ASU students pitched the NASA Student Payload Opportunity with Citizen Science to an experiment combining biology and engineering disciplines. which was selected for inclusion.

The ASU experiment was one of five planned for 2022, its inclusion bringing a $20,000 NASA grant to the team. Besides ASU and Stanford, additional experiments have been selected for 2022 in Columbia, Idaho and New Hampshire at Manchester Universities.

The experiment “” Impact of the microgravity environment on the biodegradation of plastic by Galleria mellonellain the student’s proposal is described as an experiment to discover the ability of waxworms to degrade plastics in space. The experiment could help provide answers for a more sustainable environment on Earth and future long-term space travel.

All students will be present for the launch. Biology students drive the waxworms to the launch site.

The team consists of Benjamin Whitfield of Little Rock, who is an electrical engineering major and team leader; Katherine Willis of Blue Springs, Missouri, Claire Greene of Conway, and Hannah Seats of Brookland, who are biological science majors, and Landon Perdue of Brookland, Mason Rhodes of Benton, and Jacob Oster of Bay, who are mechanical engineering majors.

“They [the students] all performed multiple tasks on this project and all team members were involved in most aspects,” said Maureen Dolan, associate professor of molecular biology at ASU. “Each member took the lead in various aspects of the project, from designing and carrying out preliminary waxworm experiments, to experimental prototyping and construction of the housing unit, to developing from curriculum for citizen science and outreach activities, to social media management.”

The launch of the experiment was originally planned for last December, but the students requested a postponement of the launch to July in order to optimize the design of the experiment, in particular by adapting to its size and carrying out tests before the flight.

Additional issues have been the acquisition of the necessary IT systems, delayed due to supply chain issues.

“This project taught students how scientific research is a dynamic process,” Dolan said. “As the students got into the design of the unit, it became apparent that the number of repetitions they could perform in this small nanomodule [a 10 by 10 by 15-centimeter box] was limited, compared to what would have been possible in an earthly experience.

“The support of our community, including too many A-State faculty and staff to thank by name, is what has made this project so fun for our team, for our citizen scientists at Nettleton STEAM Schools and Blessed Sacrament at Jonesboro, and for anyone who loves space,” Dolan said.

The ISS began its planning process in 1986 and its initial module was launched in 1998. Fifteen countries in five space agencies operate the station. More than 2,800 experiments have been carried out there. As an ongoing experiment in life in zero gravity, the ISS provides the fundamental knowledge needed to develop manned bases on other planets, which NASA says is its next step in space exploration.

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