The Adventures of the Agronuats is an online curriculum offered through North Carolina State University for teachers and students designed to excite and inspire K-12 students in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math while learning about living in space. BioServe Space Technologies is a non-profit, NASA-sponsored Research Partnership Center (RPC) located at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado. Its vision is to be recognized worldwide as a major leader in expanding the space frontier by developing valuable life science applications using the unique environment of space to create breakthroughs that benefit humanity.
BioServe and Agronauts have joined together to provide students the opportunity to participate in actual science experiments conducted onboard the International Space Station (ISS).
Many scientists have studied and asked the question what will happen to the roots and shoots of a plant germinated from seed in the weightless environment of space. How do the roots and shoots from the seed know which way is up and which way is down? During Rosy's ISS seed germination experiment participating students will learn the answer to this important question. Students will study the effects of weightlessness on seed germination and seedling growth.
Rosy’s ISS Experiment hitched a ride on the space shuttle to the International Space Station. Once the space shuttle docked with the ISS, her experiment was transferred to the ISS and placed inside BioServe’s incubator which is called Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus (CGBA). As the experiment progresses, teachers and students can take part in the project. Actual results from the ISS are available and can be compared to the "ground-control" experiments in the classroom. Experiments are designed to be easily reproducible, providing hands on experience to students.
During ISS Expeditions 14 and 15, radish and alfalfa seeds will be germinated on board the International Space Station. While the seeds germinate, BioServe engineers and scientists will collect photographs from the space experiment. These photos will be made available to the students and teachers in near real time and will be archived for use in the future. Students will compare the germination characteristics of the seeds grown in space to seeds germinated in their own classroom on Earth. The results of these experiments will help students understand the concept of gravitropism as well as issues scientists face when planning to grow plants in space. In the future, astronauts on long duration space missions may need to grow plants as a supplemental food source.
Plant growth is dependent and influenced by several environmental factors including light, temperature, soil moisture, air humidity, and gravity. This experiment is designed to teach students how gravity affects seed germination and to more clearly understand how young developing plants respond to the free fall conditions on the orbiting ISS. The seeds at the center of this experiment are radish and alfalfa.
Seeds have different parts that are easy to recognize, such as the seed coat (which covers the seed) and the hilum (where the seed was attached to the mother plant) (Figu re 1A). Just after germination, the first root emerges (called the radicle), the seed coat softens and splits, and the cotyledons (or seed leaves which contain food for the new seedling) begin to expand (Figure 1B, Figure 2).
Figure 1A. Diagram of a seed.
Figure 1B. Diagram of a seed just after germination.
Figure 2 . Green leaves and small roots of a new seedling.
On Earth, if a seed falls onto the ground with the hilum pointed upwards, the roots will first come out of the seed in an upward position but then quickly turn and grow into the ground. This redirection of growth is called gravitropism, meaning the root grows towards gravity. The stem or shoot typically grows away from gravity and towards the light. This is called negative gravitropism or positive phototropism. But what happens if there is no gravity for the root and shoot to detect? In this experiment, students will research the effects of gravity and the lack of it on the ISS on seed germination and seedling growth.
During the experiment, two pairs each of radish and alfalfa will be germinated. For each pair of seeds, one will be placed onto the seed germinating nutrient with the hilum pointed down and one pointed up. The students can also conduct the same experiment in their classroom and observe the effects of gravity versus no gravity on seed germination. Results from Rosy's ISS experiment will provide students with an understanding of how the spaceflight environment influences seed germination and growth rates by comparing the seed growth to those grown in the classroom.
The seeds will be grown inside Bioserve developed space hardware called the garden habitat (Figure 3). The garden habitat has four small chambers filled with an agar gel called Phytagel. The Phytagel has all of the moisture content and nutrients needed for the seed to germinate and grow for about two weeks. Small LED lights will provide a light source for the seed. The seeds will be attached to small plungers called dibbles that will keep the seed dry above the Phytagel until it is time to begin the experiment. When the experiment is activated, the dibbles with the seeds attached will pierce the covering of the Phytagel and place the seeds in the material (Figure 4). Once the seeds are in the Phytagel, germination will begin within 1-2 days. Small cameras will capture still pictures of the germination process and seedling growth. These images will be distributed to student participants via the “Adventures of the Agronauts” website found at www.ncsu.edu/project/agronauts. The students will examine the pictures and compare them to their own plants grown in their classroom. Students will assess the time it took for the seeds to germinate, shoot and root growth direction, and shoot and root length.
Figure 3 . BioServe's Garden Habitat.
Figure 4. Diagram of the sealed habitat container.
The Spaceflight Hardware
The spaceflight hardware used for the seed germination experiment was designed and built by BioServe engineers and students. The experiment will launch inside BioServe’s Isothermal Containment Module or incubator called CGBA (or Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus). CGBA weighs approximately 70 pounds (32 kilograms) and is 20 inches wide by 11 inches high by 18 inches deep (51 x 28 x 46 centimeters). It is placed in what is called a single middeck locker on board the space shuttle for launching. Once the space shuttle is docked with the ISS, CGBA is transferred to what is called a single locker onboard the International Space Station’s U.S. Lab “Destiny” Express Rack 1. CGBA, while onboard
the ISS (Figure 5), can be monitored and controlled from the ground at BioServe’s Remote Payload Operations Control Center also known as POCC in Boulder, Colorado. For this experiment, crew interaction is limited to transferring the CGBA locker to the space station from the shuttle, reconnecting the power, then periodically performing status checks and cleaning the air inlet during CGBA’s operation on the ISS.
Figure 5 . CGBA on board the ISS.
CGBA can be used to house a variety of experiment hardware inserts including the seed germination insert or habitat. Temperature inside CGBA can be controlled between 39°F and 99°F (4 to 37°C) for each individual experiment. Computer control of all experiment inserts placed inside CGBA enables the experiments to be conducted autonomously or without astronaut help. This helps free up astronaut time to accomplish other important tasks.