Researchers at North Carolina State University edged out several competitors July 8 by securing room onboard the Atlantis space shuttle to conduct experiments on the final mission of the shuttle program.
By seeing how plants and animals function in low-gravity environments, university researchers hope to find solutions that will benefit flora and fauna, both in space and back on Earth.
Getting projects aboard Atlantis was no small step for NC State according to a university plant biology researcher Imara Perera.
“It was fairly competitive to receive funding. The panel was comprised of scientists from both NASA and the European Space Agency,” Perera said.
Researchers from Harvard, the University of Colorado, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill also received clearance for their projects to go up on Atlantis. The shuttle will deliver the experiments to the International Space Station.
Seeds of the Future
Perera’s team is studying how vegetation behaves in different gravitational environments, especially microgravity.
“Microgravity is gravity that is much less than 1 G. It’s so much less, that’s almost negligible,” she said.
1 G is the normal amount of gravity experienced everyday on Earth. Gravity below 1 G, or microgravity, is what gives objects in space that characteristic “weightlessness” and ability to float.
“There are two chambers we’re using on the ISS to conduct the experiment. One chamber is microgravity; the other chamber simulates 1 G— Earth’s gravity,” Perera said.
This enables her team to observe plants in low gravity right alongside plants in normal, Earth-like gravity.
Understanding how the plants behave in low gravity can yield valuable knowledge for plant biologists in space and back on Earth.
“This is important for future missions because we will be using plants to clean air and water while in space. It also gives us ideas for how plants behave under extreme circumstances,” she said.
The results could prove useful for agriculture, in seeing how crops can grow in abnormal positions or after they’ve been damaged.
The team is using mouse-ear cress, a small weed, as their subject because of its short life cycle and the wide body of knowledge that already exists on the plant. NASA will keep the researches in the loop constantly.
“While the experiment is running, we get images sent to us every few hours and can see how we’re doing,” Perera said.
One Giant Leap
The university isn’t just looking at flora though. Another experiment aboard the shuttle, headed by Ted Bateman, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at NC State, is seeing how microgravity affects the bone density of mice.
“We have 30 mice on board the shuttle right now. Our goal is to observe the bone loss that occurs while the mice are in microgravity,” Bateman said.
In space, vertebrate animals, such as mice and humans, will experience significant atrophy in their muscles and bones, due to the minimal gravity. By not having the normal pull of gravity and the various loads to bear while on the ground, the muscles and bones regress and adapt to the new environment, Bateman said.
Bateman said while the findings will prove useful for protecting astronauts from bone loss on future missions, like one to Mars, they could also help people with osteoporosis back on Earth.
“Microgravity is a good way for us to accelerate the age process, so the implications of this experiment will help us learn a lot more about osteoporosis,” Bateman said.
Based on similar experiments, he hypothesizes that the bone loss will be rapid.
Both researchers were at Kennedy Space Center to see their projects take flight.
“I took some of my team down so we could see it happen. It was really thrilling to watch the launch,” Perera said.