WATERTOWN, N.Y. — On January 21st, 2020, five students from Watertown City School District, in collaboration with 4-H, presented their findings on an experiment run on the International Space Station. The experiment began in Fall of 2018, Jefferson County 4-H began participation in the Student Spaceflights Experiments Program, an initiative organized by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE). A competition was implemented where over 50 student teams designed experiments that could theoretically be run on the International Space Station, with the outcome being that one experiment would be selected for full implementation. The competition concluded in January of 2019 with the announcement of the finalist team from WCSD. The group comprised of the then 6th grade 4-H participants from H.T. Wiley Intermediate School. The five students on the team were Ryan Arca -Steel, Agnika Ghatak, Alexander Higginbotham, Skyye Mee-Thomas, and Mallary Williams. The team had two teacher facilitators, Schyler Rizzo – the Site Coordinator for the 4-H Afterschool Program at Wiley, and Ann Fillhart, a 6th-grade teacher at Wiley as well as a 4-H volunteer. The team’s experiment investigated the removal of rust in a microgravity environment.
The students implemented a very simple experiment. The first step involved putting a set of carbon steel rods through a rusting process in a saltwater solution, prior to placing them in a test tube bound for the ISS. Step two involved enclosing the rusted carbon steel rod in a test tube and enclosing a vinegar/water mixture into separate compartments of the test tube. Upon arrival on the ISS, astronauts interacted with the experiment, the volume containing the vinegar solution was released into the volume containing the carbon steel rod, allowing the process of rust removal to begin. In order to facilitate the experiment, the student team developed instructions, which were provided to the astronaut attending to the experiments in the research wing of the ISS.
The experiment took place in a NASA approved test tube, known as a Fluid Mixing Enclosure (FME) type 3. The FME is a flexible silicon test tube that allows experiment components to be separated with a clamp system. A total of five FME’s were prepared, one for experimentation on the ISS, and the other four as earth-based tests for comparison.
Students conducted initial rusting tests using carbon steel welding rods, provided by Haun Welding. The final experiment required that the carbon steel rods be machined to the same size/weight to ten-thousandths of a gram (.0001). In order to accomplish this, New York Air Brake engineer Jeff Sauter provided assistance and machining expertise. The student team created a technical drawing, which provided instructions on the size/weight requirements. The students toured New York Air Brake, met with the engineer, and looked at the equipment that would be used to machine the metal rods for their experiment.
The students also needed precise measuring equipment and a lab to practice assembly of the experiment. The Research and Development Lab at Knowlton Technologies LLC was very kind to offer access to their lab and equipment. On May 23, the student team went to the R&D Lab at Knowlton Technologies for a final review of their experiment procedure, mock assembly, and pre-sterilization of several experiment components. The team at Knowlton was kind enough to show a microscopic view of the rust samples, and even provided a tour of their facility to the students!
The final experiment was assembled in June, at Cornell University’s Lab of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. The experiment required all components to be autoclaved (sterilized). The experiment assembly was overseen by Dr. Kathleen Vaeth, a senior lecturer at the university. Students were required to interface with a team member from NanoRacks, a private company responsible for the development and use of experiment equipment used on the International Space Station.
On July 24, 2019, the experiment was transported to the International Space Station via a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, along with 37 other student experiments submitted internationally as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. The experiment remained on the ISS for four weeks, during which time the astronauts carried out the students’ instructions for activation of the experiment, and termination in space. The same process was applied to four earth-based experiments during the same timeframe – for comparison.
The experiment returned to earth on August 27th, and the students received their test tube on September 5th. The student team then met with the R&D Lab team at Knowlton Technologies LLC to analyze their findings, followed by group meetings of the students to discuss the data that had been collected.
The goal of the experiment was to determine if rust removal takes the same amount of time on the ISS as on Earth. The student’s hypothesis was that the rate of rust removal would actually be faster on earth, as compared to space. They hypothesized that the rusted rod would have less exposure to the solution while suspended in microgravity. The students began their process of harvesting data by removing all rusted rods from the solution and putting them in a desiccator, an enclosure that would remove all moisture. After the rods had been thoroughly dried, the rods were ready to be weighed. The students were astonished to find out that the ISS based experiment weight fell exactly in the middle of the measurements across the group – two weighed more and two weighed less. The student team concluded that the rate of rust removal takes place at the same rate in space as on earth! Of course, this is the first set of data for this type of experiment, so several more iterations of this experiment would allow a broader data set to be conclusive of these results.
One student, Mallary Williams, who came up with the concept for the experiment, was selected for the Girls Living STEM Award in Fall of 2019. The student group, as a whole, are very proud of their accomplishments and found the project to be inspiration for their future careers. The students are also hopeful that the data provided by their experiment will be a starting point for further experimentation and may one day be beneficial for the safety of long term space flights and even space colonization.
The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program [or SSEP] is a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in the U.S. and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education internationally. It is enabled through a strategic partnership with DreamUp PBC and NanoRacks LLC, which are working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory.
–Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County
For more articles out of New York, click here.