TRAVERSE CITY — At its closest, Mars is about 34 million — give or take a couple hundred thousand — miles away from Earth. Scientists estimate a trip from here to there would take about 300 days.
Although no human has attempted the outer space excursion, there are some who believe a manned mission to orbit Mars will happen by the mid-2030s. The men and women chosen for that journey, when or if it happens, will need supplies, and water will be high on that list.
Four students at Traverse City West Senior High School are hopeful their latest science experiment can help with that — and NASA is curious to find out.
Freshmen Hattie Holmes, Langley Nelson, Kale Cerny and Lainey Wickman were one of 241 groups at West that participated in a competition to have their proposed experiment conducted by astronauts on the International Space Station later this year. That group was whittled down to 35, out of which three were chosen by a local board of review to be sent to Washington, D.C. for consideration in the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program.
Now, three is down to one, and that one will be part of 40 experiments chosen from across the country that are strapped to a rocket and launched into the cosmos.
“I was confused at first when they told us we won,” Wickman said. “I was like, ‘Wait, are we just moving onto the next round or what? What’s happening?” And then they told us that we actually won. I didn’t really believe it at first.”
The experiment, titled “The Growth of Bacillus Subtilis on a Substrata Material in Microgravity,” will attempt to see if bacteria can ... well, Holmes can explain it better.
“We’re growing bacteria on a silicon wafer to hopefully create a thin biofilm layer that could create energy or oxygen and help us recycle water, which could potentially help with long-distance space travel,” Holmes said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us.”
The group began work in early October and brainstormed for about a week before agreeing that finding a way to recycle water in space would be the most beneficial. Holmes had the idea of examining probiotics, and Nelson said it blossomed from there.
“The first thing we thought of was, ‘What would be good? What would be a good outcome? What is something we could work toward? What is something that could help space missions?’” Nelson said.
Once the experiments are launched into space in late spring or early summer, there is a plan for the astronauts and the students to conduct their research at the same time. West science teacher and SSEP director Patrick Gillespie said the students will conduct a control experiment on Earth to compare to the results the astronauts get.
“This was a great idea,” Gillespie said. “They really had to work hard to make it happen so that NASA and the SSEP would accept it. They don’t send just anything up there. It has to follow strict rules. It’s got to be safe and useful. They had to do a lot of work just making sure that it was a really cool idea that really worked.”
On the third day after arriving at the ISS, the astronauts will take the equipment they’ve been given, open the first clamp on the test tube and shake for 30 seconds. Two days before returning to Earth, the astronauts will open the second clamp and shake for 30 seconds.
“The first one gives a growth medium to the freeze-dried bacteria to start it growing. The second one puts a formula in there to kill it in space so it stops growing,” Gillespie said. “We’ll do the same thing down here so that the whole growth period will be on Earth. We’ll be able to look at the difference of microgravity, which is basically no gravity, and gravity.”
Holmes, Nelson, Cerny and Wickman have been in continuous contact with NASA officials, who have been sending them rules, guidelines, research, safety precautions and data sheets among other information.
“You grow up as a kid thinking that NASA is at the top of the line of science,” Cerny said, “and now — as freshmen — we’re communicating with them. It’s really awesome.”
The foursome is hoping their experiment bears fruit — or more appropriately, holds water. Even if it doesn’t, however, Nelson said they have already been successful.
“We’ll still get data to help us learn from what we did,” Nelson said. “Science experiments that don’t work still give us information.”