Keep Reading. Subscribe Today.

Stay connected with our community and support nationally-acclaimed local news coverage. Sign up for a subscription today. Cancel anytime.

  • Already a subscriber?

From space to Sumter: Students learn chemical mix can help plants grow in space

BY BRUCE MILLS
bruce@theitem.com
Posted 8/14/18

"It did. It really did," said Alice Drive Middle School student Alana Garrick.

"Yay," said fellow rising seventh-grader Mary Brooke Mooneyham.

That's after the two learned on Friday in a special ceremony at the school that sodium polyacrylate …

This item is available in full to subscribers

From space to Sumter: Students learn chemical mix can help plants grow in space

Posted

"It did. It really did," said Alice Drive Middle School student Alana Garrick.

"Yay," said fellow rising seventh-grader Mary Brooke Mooneyham.

That's after the two learned on Friday in a special ceremony at the school that sodium polyacrylate can be used in space for seed germination and plant growth. ... What?

No one would get excited about that, unless you can learn it by chance in a unique and special way.

Garrick and Mooneyham, along with fellow sixth-grade scientists from the school, Alyse King and Ashlin Farmer, were able to do just that after being selected in January for a student spaceflight experiments program to the International Space Station.

The National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, which is staffed with professional scientists and engineers in Washington, D.C., spearheads the program and selects a limited number of schools to participate in the spaceflight experiments program every two years.

The all-girl team from Alice Drive Middle was a group from one of only 31 schools and colleges in the U.S., Canada and Brazil that were selected last school year for the program.

In June, Mission 12 spaceflight astronauts had liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and took the team's experiment - sealed in a test tube - with instructions provided to the International Space Station, where they performed it for the Sumter students during the summer.

The experiment was to test the effects of microgravity, which is the lack of gravity, on vegetable seed germination in the sodium chemical mixture.

From their own research in pre-trials last fall, the foursome knew the outcome of the experiment on land - the vegetable seed germinates, or grows, into a small plant. But no one knew the experiment's outcome in space or microgravity.

During the summer, as the astronauts performed the mini-lab experiment in various stages in space, they would log in and communicate that information down to Earth, and the Alice Drive team would basically simultaneously perform the same steps in a "control group" on the ground here in Sumter at the school.

That meant for a "crazy, busy summer" for the girls who were basically "on call" all the time, said Principal Jeannie Pressley.

Both experiments - the one at the space station and the one at the school - were kept at 70 degrees to ensure uniformity. The only difference, of course, was gravity.

All eight vegetable seeds germinated again for the team here in Sumter. In space, six of eight seeds germinated.

On Aug. 3, the experiment left the International Space Station and eventually splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, Pressley said. It was then picked up by a ship and eventually driven to Houston, Texas.

Houston notified Alice Drive Middle of the experiment's arrival, and it was over-nighted to Sumter for Friday's "grand opening."

To explain the space flight experiment scientifically, the sodium polyacrylate interacted with water in the test tube, and therefore the vegetable seeds germinated.

Since germination occurred and it's known that sodium polyacrylate interacts with water in space, other uses of the sodium mixture with water are possible in space, such as in making an insulator.

"Our results proved our hypothesis, and now we know that the seeds will germinate in sodium polyacrylate in space, and it does expand," said team member Alyse King.

Team member Ashlin Farmer said she thought the whole spaceflight experiments program was awesome.

"It was really cool to see that the last person who touched it was an astronaut," Farmer said. "When we touched it today, it was neat that someone that smart and knowledgeable touched it right before us, and we're only going into the seventh grade."

Also, this summer the girls got to fit in a trip to Washington and presented their project at the Smithsonian Institute.

Farmer and King said the whole process helped their team bond.

"It's also really cool because we got a lot closer as friends when we did this," Farmer said. "We've seen each other a lot over the summer because we've done so many things together."