New Opportunity for Students to Reach for the Stars and Send an Experiment to the Space Station


A new opportunity is available for students and teachers to be part of history and fly the very first Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) mission to the International Space Station. This program is open to students from any country that is part of the ISS partnership, in grades 5-12 as well as colleges and universities.

This opportunity offers real research done on orbit, with students designing and proposing the experiments to fly to the space station.

“Science is not something that can only be carried out by an elite community of researchers,” Dr. Jeff Goldstein, the Director for the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education told Universe Today. “It’s really just organized curiosity, and can be undertaken by anyone. So to inspire our next generation of scientists and engineers, we thought we’d give students an opportunity to do real scientific research on America’s newest National Laboratory – the International Space Station.”

SSEP is a program that launched in June 2010 by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education in partnership with NanoRacks, LLC, a company that is working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory.

Two previous SSEP missions flew on the final shuttle flights, but this is the first to be part of the ISS science program.

NanoRacks hopes to stimulate space station research by providing a very low-cost 1 kilogram platform and other hardware that puts micro-gravity projects within the reach of universities and small companies, as well as elementary and secondary schools through SSEP. So, this is actually a commercial space program and not a NASA program.

On the previous SSEP missions with the space shuttles, 1,027 student team proposals were submitted with 27 experiments selected to fly, representing the 27 communities.

“We know even 5th graders can rise to this challenge and amaze us all,” Goldstein said, “and they already proved it on the final two flights of the Space Shuttle.”

The countries that can participate are the US, Canada, Japan and the European nations that are partners in the ISS program.

SSEP Mission 1 to ISS is now open for registration, with participating communities selected no later than September 30, 2012, so this is time critical.

Goldstein noted there are a significant number of resources that make this process straight-forward, including an instructionally designed recipe allowing teachers to easily facilitate the introduction of the program in the classroom, conduct experiment design, and do the proposal writing.

There are five categories of participation:

Pre-College (the core focus for SSEP) in the U.S., (grades 5-12), with a participating school district—even an individual school—providing stunning, real, on-orbit RESEARCH opportunities to their upper elementary, middle, and high school students

2-Year Community Colleges in the U.S., (grades 13-14), where the student body is typically from the local community, providing wonderful pathways for community-wide engagement

4-Year Colleges and Universities in the U.S., (grades 13-16), with an emphasis on Minority-Serving Institutions, where the program fosters interdisciplinary collaboration across schools and departments, and an opportunity for formal workforce development for science majors

Communities in the U.S. led by Informal Education or Out-of-School Organizations, (e.g., a museum or science center, a homeschool network, a boy scout troop), because high caliber STEM education programs must be accessible to organizations that promote effective learning beyond the traditional classroom

Communities in ISS Partner Nations: EU nations, Canada, and Japan with participation through NCESSE’s Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education.

Goldstein said the program is a U.S. national Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education initiative that gives up to 3,200 students across a community—middle and high school students (grades 5-12), and/or undergraduates the ability to fly their own experiments in low Earth orbit on the International Space Station.

For more information see the SSEP website

Read about the experience of previous SSEP program schools on the space shuttle

Watch a video of Dr. Jeff Goldstein talking about SSEP.

Replication of Arsenic Life Experiment Not Successful So Far


One of the most vocal and ardent critics of the so-called ‘arsenic life’ experiment which was published in December 2010 was biologist Rosie Redfield from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The science paper by NASA astrobiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon and her team reported that a type of bacteria in Mono Lake in California can live and grow almost entirely on arsenic, a poison, and incorporates it into its DNA. Redfield called the paper “lots of flim-flam, but very little reliable information.” Her opinion was quickly seconded by many other biologists/bloggers.

Redfield has been working on replicating the experiment done by Wolfe-Simon, and doing in her work in front of the world, so to speak. She is detailing her work in an open lab notebook on her blog. So far, she reports that her results contradict Wolfe-Simon et al.’s observations.

To date, Redfield is finding that the bacteria, called GFAJ-1, is not living and growing in arsenic, but dying. Redfield says her work refutes that cells from the GFAJ-1 could use arsenic for growth in place of phosphorus, and when arsenic was added to the low-phosphorus medium in which the bacteria was living, the bacteria was killed. Additionally, in other test viles, the growth properties Redfield is finding for GFAJ-1 don’t match those reported by Wolfe-Simon and her team, which claimed that the bacteria could not grow on a low concentration of phosphorus, and that the bacteria could grow on arsenic in the absence of phosphorus.

Felisa Wolfe-Simon, right, a NASA astrobiology research fellow in residence at the USGS, and Ronald Oremland, an expert in arsenic microbiology at the USGS, examine sediment in August 2009 from Mono Lake in eastern California. Credit: © 2009 Henry Bortman

Redfield’s two major early criticisms of the original paper were that the authors had not ruled out the possibility that the bacteria were feeding on phosphorus contaminating their growth medium; and that the bacterial DNA was not properly purified, so that the arsenic detected might not actually have been in DNA.

An article in Nature reports that other researchers also working on replicating the experiment with GFAJ-1 laud Redfield’s efforts, but say it is too early to conclude that she has debunked the original work.

Additionally, one problem is that Redfield she did not replicate the experiment exactly, as she had to add one nutrient not used by the authors of the original arsenic life paper in order for the bacteria to grow.

This is not the first time scientists have written open notebooks during the replication of controversial findings, but it might be one of the more notable, given the amount of media attention the arsenic life paper received.

Redfield is also hoping that her work will highlight the benefits of open notebook-type research.

You can read Redfield’s blog about her work at this link.

Sources: Nature, Redfield’s blog.

How Does the Aurora Borealis Form?

Seeing the Northern or Southern Lights is an awe-inspiring experience, but do you know the science behind their beauty? This video from Per Byhring and the physics department at the University of Oslo explains how particles originating from deep inside the core of the Sun creates aurorae in the atmosphere of Earth.

The video takes a look at how cloud of electrically charged particles emanate from the Sun, and what happens when this plasma reaches the Earth and interacts with the planet’s magnetic field, which creates fantastic light shows in the extreme northern and southern latitudes.

Via Scientific American

Bringing the Solar System Down to Earth

As a part of NASA’s ongoing Year of the Solar System – which is actually a single Martian year long, or 23 months – the excitement of planetary exploration is being brought to people around the world through a enthusiastic science outreach program called From Earth to the Solar System (FETTSS). A continuation of the well-received International Year of Astronomy 2009 From Earth to the Universe program, FETTSS provides over 90 beautiful high-resolution images of fascinating locations around our solar system; from the ice geysers of Enceladus to the plasma arcs of solar prominences, the cold dunes of Mars to the hot springs of Yellowstone, the FETTSS collection showcases many wonders of many worlds – and helps bring them within view of as many people as possible.

The images are displayed in public locations, hosted by organizations that raise all the necessary funding to have them printed and installed. The FETTSS site exists to provide the high-resolution print images as well as offer guidance as to how to best plan, market and set up an installation.

What’s wonderful about From Earth to the Solar System – as well as its predecessor From Earth to the Universe – is how it brings the fascination of science and astronomy to people who may not have previously given it much thought. By presenting large-format images with descriptive captions in common places – such as in an airport or outside in a public park – FETTSS hosts are actively capturing the interest of viewers and engaging them in astronomy – many undoubtedly for the first time.

People around the world are being connected with the most recent work of scientists and researchers in a way that’s attractive, informative and yet accessible. This is the key to any successful outreach program.

The images are at once artistic and informative, weaving together themes in astrobiology, planetary science, and astronomy. Including contributions from backyard astronomers, large telescopes in space, and even point-and-shoot cameras of field researchers, the collection represents the current state of exploration as seen through the eyes of the scientific community.

Currently an exhibit is just wrapping up in Corpus Christi, Texas, at the Museum of Science and History and was very well-received by both people and the press! The next scheduled event will take place in June at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

A FETTU outdoor installation in Geneva

FETTSS looks to build on the success of the 2009 FETTU program.

“We are hoping to replicate some of FETTU’s success and bring a measure of sustainability to the FETTU concept. ‘From Earth to the Solar System’ is taking a similar grassroots-type of approach to exhibit creation, and will hopefully help remove the barrier to ‘seeking science out’ for some visitors and help make setting up an exhibit more efficient for organizers,” said Kimberly Kowal Arcand, Media Production Coordinator for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and FETTSS principal investigator.

“With FETTU – and what we hope to find with FETTSS – there was a wonderful response from both visitors and organizers,” said Arcand. “We found, unexpectedly, a sort of emotional and personal connection to the images in the FETTU project and I’m interested to see if we find that again with FETTSS. I was personally overwhelmed with the response to FETTU… it was the most inspiring thing I have ever worked on!”

Already, exhibitors worldwide have expressed interest in hosting FETTSS installations… from Argentina, Serbia, China, Colombia, Canada, UK, Ireland, Egypt, Spain, Armenia, as well as from numerous locations in the US – many of whom had previously hosted FETTU events.

So with such a great program and strong response, the question remains: what’s next?

“From Earth to the Sun? From Earth to the Galaxies?” suggested Arcand.

With all that’s being discovered, whatever it is it’s sure to be another success!


For more information about FETTSS or to host an FETTSS event in your area, visit the main site here.

Fuel Droplet Burning in Space is Psychedelic, Man


Dude! This awesome image looks like a psychedelic 1970’s flashback. But is is actually a droplet of fuel burning in space, on board the International Space Station. NASA explains that because of the absence of gravity, fuels burning in space behave very differently than they do on Earth. The Flame Extinguishing Experiment on board the ISS is examining the combustion of such liquid fuel droplets, and in this image, a 3-millimeter diameter droplet of heptane fuel burns in microgravity, producing soot. When a bright, uniform backlight is placed behind the droplet and flame and recorded by a video camera, the soot appears as a dark cloud. Image processing techniques can then quantify the soot concentration at each point in the image.

NASA explains:

This colorized gray-scale image is a composite of the individual video frames of the backlit fuel droplet. The bright yellow structure in the middle is the path of the droplet, which becomes smaller as it burns. Initial soot structures (in green) tend to form near the liquid fuel. These come together into larger and larger particles which ultimately spiral out of the flame zone in long, twisting streamers.

Far out!

Source: NASA Image of the Day

Scientists to go Suborbital for Research


Think again if you believe the suborbital space market is exclusively for well-heeled tourists. The Southwest Research Institute has just inked deals with Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace to fly up to 17 scientific research flights. Three scientists, including Dr. Alan Stern, former head of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA and current New Horizons Principal Investigator, will become some of the first scientists to fly on a commercial spacecraft to conduct scientific research. They will fly on board Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo and XCOR’s Lynx.

“We’re another step closer to the era of routine ‘field work’ in space research,” said Dr. Dan Durda, another SwRI scientist who is scheduled to fly. “More and more researchers will soon fly with their own experiments in space, and do it regularly enough to allow the important advances that come with iterative investigations. I’m looking forward to that future and helping it become a reality.”

“We at SwRI are very strong believers in the transformational power of commercial, next-generation suborbital vehicles to advance many kinds of research,” said Stern. “We also believe that by putting scientists in space with their experiments, researchers can achieve better results at lower costs and a higher probability of success than with many old-style automated experiments.”

Alan Stern is ready to go to space. Credit: SwRI

The spacecraft will fly on short suborbital flights to altitudes greater than 107,000 meters (350,000 feet) above the internationally recognized boundary of space.

At least two SwRI researchers will fly on SpaceShipTwo, which can carry two pilots and up to six researchers, and later, there will be a dedicated six-seat research mission SS2. SpaceShipTwo’s large cabin enables researchers to work together in an “out-of-seat” micro gravity environment.

XCOR's Lynx suborbital vehicle. Credit: XCOR

SwRI researchers will also fly at least six high altitude missions aboard XCOR Corporation’s Lynx Mark I high-altitude rocket plane, which carries a pilot and a single researcher at altitudes up to 200,000 feet. Lynx I is currently in development, with test flights expected to begin in 2012.

The types of research planned includes biomedical, microgravity and astronomical imaging experiments.
Besides Stern andDurda, Dr. Cathy Olkin is also scheduled to fly on the research flights. All three scientists selected have trained for suborbital spaceflight aboard zero-G aircraft, in NASTAR centrifuges and aboard Starfighter F-104 jet fighters in the last year.

“This is a historic moment for spaceflight,” said Commercial Spaceflight Federation Executive Director John Gedmark. “A scientific research institution is spending its own money to send its scientists to space. I expect that these scientists will be the first of many to fly to space commercially. As the scientific community realizes that they can put payloads and people into space at unprecedented low costs, the floodgates will open even wider.”

Sources: SwRI, Commercial Spaceflight Federation

Historic Opportunity for Students to Participate on “Extra” Shuttle Mission


A new opportunity for students to be part of history and fly an experiment on what could be the last space shuttle mission has been announced by the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) for the STS-135, the shuttle mission that might fly in June of 2011.

“We hope to get 50 communities and 100,000 students participating in the initiative which allows grade 5-14 student design of real experiments to fly aboard Atlantis, and engages entire communities,” Dr. Jeff Goldstein, the Director for the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education told Universe Today. “This is very unique opportunity for students and teachers to be part of a high visibility, keystone U.S. national STEM education program of the highest caliber.”

SSEP is a new program that launched in June 2010 by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education in partnership with NanoRacks, LLC, a company that is working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory.

The company hopes to stimulate space station research by providing a very low-cost 1 kilogram platform that puts micro-gravity projects within the reach of universities and small companies, as well as elementary and secondary schools through SSEP. So, this is actually a commercial space program and not a NASA program.

This opportunity offers real research done on orbit, with students designing and proposing the experiments to fly in low Earth orbit.

Goldstein said the program is a U.S. national Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education initiative that gives up to 3,200 students across a community—middle and high school students (grades 5-12), and/or undergraduates at 2-year community colleges (grades 13-14)—the ability to fly their own experiments in low Earth orbit, first aboard the final flights of the Space Shuttle, and then later on the International Space Station.

For the STS-134 mission, now scheduled to launch in April 2011, 16 communities were chosen to participate from 447 student team proposals. Goldstein said the 16 selected experiments are now moving through formal NASA Flight Safety review.

But the end of the shuttle mission is not the end of this program – instead it is just the beginning. “This is meant to be a gateway to Phase 2 of the program, which will allow routine access to space for students conducting experiments, said Goldstein. “SSEP was designed to engage and inspire America’s next generation of scientists and engineers through immersion in real science. We believe that ‘student as scientist’ represents the very best in science education.”

What type of experiments would be accepted? Students and teachers should discuss what biological, chemical or physical system they would like to explore with no gravity off for 10 days. Examples of experiments are seed germination cell biology, life cycles of organisms, food preservation, and crystal growth. The SSEP program will help guide the teachers through implementation of the program in their classrooms.

Each participating school district will be provided an experiment slot in an easy-to-use real microgravity research mini-laboratory flying on Space Shuttle Atlantis. The SSEP center will then guide the school districts through an experiment design competition within the grade 5-12 range, which can be conducted across a single school, or district-wide to as many as 3,200 students. Student teams then design real experiments vying for your reserved slot on this historic flight, with designs constrained by mini-laboratory operation.

Other benefits of the program include a customized Blog for students and teachers to report on their program, and a design competition for each school to have a 4-inch x 4-inch emblem that we will fly aboard the Shuttle and returned to the school.

There is uncertainty, however, whether the STS-135 mission will fly. Funding for the additional STS-135 mission was authorized by Congress on September 29, 2010, and the authorization was signed by President Obama. NASA is currently awaiting Congressional allocation of funds for STS-135. On January 20, 2011, NASA formally added STS-135 to its launch schedule. Goldstein said there is now a high probability that STS-135 will indeed fly. But when it flies is the issue.

Because of the timing of when NASA needs to have a list of material that will be used in the experiments so that they can do a flight safety review, the SSEP program needs NASA to slip the launch date from June 28, 2011 until at least August 31, 2011. They fully expect this to occur given the significant launch slips that have occurred for STS-133 and STS-134, and the conversations already taking place in NASA.

But it is now time critical for schools to be able to participate. There is a proposal submission deadline of May 12, 2011. By the end of May, the flight experiments will be selected, so that NASA can be provided with the materials list 3 months in advance of launch.

For more information see the SSEP website

Testimonials for SSEP on STS-134

Watch a video of Dr. Jeff Goldstein talking about SSEP.

Science Sees Farther: Extraterrestrial Life

Are we alone in the universe? Can we save the lives of millions with new vaccines? How can we manage the increasing demands on our planet’s resources? Scientists try to answer these questions and more as part of a celebration of the 350th year of The Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of sciences. The Society has unveiled a new section on their website today, called “Science Sees Farther”, which includes essays, interviews and more on 12 different scientific topics, including extraterrestrial life, aging, health, climate change, and geoengineering, as well as discussions of the always-present uncertainties in science and how the internet has changed the science landscape.
Continue reading “Science Sees Farther: Extraterrestrial Life”

Anti-hydrogen Captured, Held For First Time


Can warp drive be far behind? A paper published in this week’s edition of Nature reports that for the first time, antimatter atoms have been captured and held long enough to be studied by scientific instruments. Not only is this a science fiction dream come true, but in a very real way this could help us figure out what happened to all the antimatter that has vanished since the Big Bang, one of the biggest mysteries of the Universe. “We’re very excited about the fact that we can actually now trap antimatter atoms long enough to study their properties and see if they’re very different from matter,” said Makoto Fujiwara, a team member from ALPHA, an international collaboration at CERN.

Antimatter is produced in equal quantities with matter when energy is converted into mass. This happens in particle colliders like CERN and is believed to have happened during the Big Bang at the beginning of the universe.

“A good way to think of antimatter is a mirror image of normal matter,” said team spokesman Jeffrey Hangst, a physicist at Aarhus University in Denmark. “For some reason the universe is made of matter, we don’t know why that is, because you could in principle make a universe of antimatter.”

In order to study antimatter, scientists have to make it in a laboratory. The ALPHA collaboration at CERN has been able to make antihydrogen – the simplest antimatter atom – since 2002, producing it by mixing anti- protons and positrons to make a neutral anti-atom. “What is new is that we have managed to hold onto those atoms,” said Hangst, by keeping atoms of antihydrogen away from the walls of their container to prevent them from getting annihilated for nearly a tenth of a second.

The antihydrogen was held in an ion trap, with electromagnetic fields to trap them in a vacuum, and cooled to 9 Kelvin (-443.47 degrees Fahrenheit, -264.15 degrees Celsius). To actually see if they made any antihydrogen, they release a small amount and see if there is any annihilation between matter and antimatter.

The next step for the ALPHA collaboration is to conduct experiments on the trapped antimatter atoms, and the team is working on a way to find out what color light the antihydrogen shines when it is hit with microwaves, and seeing how that compares to the colors of hydrogen atoms.

CERN Press release

ALPHA collaboration

Nature article.

ISS Particle Detector Ready to Unveil Wonders of the Universe


The Principal Investigator (P.I.) for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2 (AMS-02) experiment, Professor Samuel Ting, says that the experiment is already accruing data as it awaits its February 2011 launch date. Scheduled to fly aboard the final flight of the space shuttle Endeavour, STS-134, AMS-02 will search through cosmic rays for exotic particles, antimatter and dark matter. The experiment will be mounted to the outside of the International Space Station (ISS) and will require no spacewalks to attach.
Continue reading “ISS Particle Detector Ready to Unveil Wonders of the Universe”