A group of Ballard High School astronomy students watched today as their science experiment launched into space on board the Shuttle Endeavour.
Led by their teacher, Eric Muhs, the students combined biology with astronomy and created an experiment. They want to know how being in space affects bacteria. With that in mind, they’re sending E. coli into zero gravity.
Muhs said they’re expecting to see some changes to the bacteria when it gets back from space. “What we’re looking for is, do these bacteria accumulate mutations in space?” Muhs explained. “Not only is it a different sort of gravity environment, but they’ll be exposed to more radiation because they don’t have the protection of the Earth’s atmosphere.”
The students have been planning the experiment since the fall, and co-lead investigator and student Sarah Culp says she was on board from the beginning. “I love all science, but the one study that has completely mesmerized me is astronomy. Whenever I get the chance to do anything related or even make something relatable to astronomy I do it, therefore this project was a no-brainer for me,” Culp said in an email.
Culp and eight other students (Paul Menendez, Danny Thomson, Austin Beetterly, Kevin Day, Katie Kemp, Julian Amrine, Eleuterio Muhs and Avi Silver-Huey) worked together on the experiment. The students went to Florida with their teacher in April to watch the shuttle launch, but were disappointed when the launch was postponed. Fortunately, the group was given a behind-the-scenes tour of the Kennedy Space Center.
Muhs says the experience has been exciting for the students. “It’s all new to us, that’s the key thing to students. It doesn’t have to be the history of science, it just has to be new to them.” And, he hopes the experiment will contribute to the astronomy program for years to come. “One of the cool things is that we will have some of the bacteria in space frozen down. So, it’s not just testing this year, but years of Ballard students will be able to work with the bacteria.”
So, what can an experiment like this tell scientists?
“There’s pretty good evidence that life may have traveled from planet to planet, so it all relates to questions like who are we, and how did we get here? Did life have to evolve on earth or could it have traveled here? They’re questions people find highly intriguing,” Muhs said.
Ballard High School is one of 16 schools whose experiments were chosen for the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. This is the Shuttle Endeavour’s final launch into space.
(Contributor Meghan Walker is an intern through the University of Washington School of Communications)