Students launched worms into space to research microgravity composting

Westcot students preparing worms for space travel
Five students have had a proposal to send worms into space accepted. The research project is part of NASA's Students Spaceflight Experiments Program.

BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA – A team of five students from Westcot Elementary School were successful with their proposal to send worms into space as part of NASA’s Students Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP).

The students, Kristopher Kirkwood, Griffin Edward, Shania Farbehi, Vesal Farahi, and Joseph Piovesan sent worms into orbit in January 2017 to research if worms can grow in zero gravity.

Their project was one of 21 student experiments selected from over 2,400 proposals created by students in elementary, middle and high schools, colleges and universities across the North America.

After initially suggesting a spider experiment as a cool idea, the group settled on the worm project after considering the role worms play in composting toilets and growing food.

The students’ project description on the NASA website highlights:

“On August 10, 2015, astronauts aboard the ISS harvested and ate romaine lettuce they planted in July. Red worms eat plant scraps and then excrete nutrients helping newer plants grow. This is called composting….Red worms are also a very important part of composting toilets. Composting toilets separate faeces from other waste into a giant metal canister. Inside the canister, red worms then turn the waste into fertile soil that could be used to grow food.”

Their proposal of sending red worms into space was to research how the worms grow and function, particularly burrowing, while in a microgravity environment on the International Space Station. Because of its unique nature, studying the growth of worms in zero gravity presented its own challenges.

Aside from completing a proposal for the flight, the students have had first-hand experience in microgravity experiment design and a science proposal review process. Their work was funded by Boeing and Magellan Aerospace, and has been vetted and approved by NASA engineers. The team ran experiments on dirt, reviewed pH levels and food sources to find what constituted optimum conditions for worm growth.

The students have also experienced a flight safety review and worked hands-on with the flight certified hardware, MixStix.

The project spanned nearly a year and included attendence at a conference at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington DC where they presented their research and proposal to fellow students and researchers from around the United States and Canada.

While the flight experiment is conducted on the International Space Station for between four and six months by astronauts, the students undertake the ground truth investigation.

The students have highlighted how the project started with science, but also required significant language arts skills and mathematics in researching and writing the proposal. Working collaboratively as a high functioning team was also emphasised by the students.

Images: Courtesy of Matt Trask

More information:

Matt Trask, VP Westcot Elementary School on Twitter @TraskMatt

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