News

Students around the world perform plant growth experiments with ISS

By Trina Paskett
Space Dynamics Laboratory
February 15, 2006

Logan, Utah—Students from all over Earth, working with cosmonauts in space, are participating in a plant growth experiment that stretches beyond the atmosphere, literally taking it out of this world.

Under the direction of the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems and Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory (SDL), middle and high school students in Utah, Idaho, Florida, and Alaska, along with students in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia, will be planting seeds and growing peas in Micro-Lada.

“We decided to develop Micro-Lada because of the interest we receive when we present Lada and its experiments to students and teachers,” said Gayle Bowen, SDL Micro-Lada outreach manager.

Micro-Lada is a scaled-down classroom version of the plant growth chamber Lada, which is a vegetation chamber created to provide a "space garden" for astronauts and cosmonauts during their long flights on the International Space Station (ISS). Students will be growing peas using similar soil substrate, then comparing their data with other schools and with data from space, as cosmonauts conduct their plant growth experiments and interact with the students.

“Our goal for this project is to bridge international borders and help students realize that science is an important element all over the world,” said Bowen. “Our hope is that at the end of the experiment, the students will truly understand the spirit of cooperation associated with the ISS program.”

The education outreach office at SDL is charged with finding ways to use the technology developed at SDL to inspire and excite students and to encourage them to consider careers in the science and engineering fields. USU undergraduate and graduate students working at SDL designed and built the Lada and Micro-Lada growth chambers.

“One of the most exciting aspects of Micro-Lada is that it’s going all over the world, and that the experiment will be performed by students here on Earth and a cosmonaut in space all at the same time,” said Ryan Bohm, SDL student engineer and senior at USU. “It was fun developing the growth chamber knowing that the students would get such a unique hands-on experience.”

Bowen agreed and said that another important factor of the project is that Micro-Lada was created by college students for students. She said it is easy for students, especially those in high school, to relate to the college students who are just a few years older then they are.

“When these college students go into the high schools and talk about the projects they have worked on that are now orbiting the Earth, high school students can see that being part of the space program is attainable,” said Bowen.

The Micro-Lada kit includes a reusable case, vegetation tray, soil substrate (almost identical to the substrate used in Lada, but with added fertilizer), a packet of peas, a grow light and reflector, software for recording growth data, and set-up instructions. A total of 15 chambers were distributed: five to Russia and the others within the United States.

The peas and plant growth expertise for the US students is provided by USU Crop Physiology Department. The Russian students and the cosmonaut are growing a slightly different variety, developed at Moscow University. The Rocky Mountain NASA Space Grant Consortium has been assisting with some of the outreach efforts in Utah. The NASA – Ames Research Center Aerospace Education Services Program (AESP) program is helping with space plant educator guides and teacher assistance.

The Lada growth chamber has been on the Russian segment of the ISS since its launch in 2002. It has produced a continuous harvest of fresh vegetables, providing cosmonauts with nutritional supplements and therapeutic recreational activity.

SDL collaborated with the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems to develop Lada. The information collected by Lada and SDL's other space agriculture experiments will be vital for the future design of long-term space missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

The Micro-Lada team is interested in expanding the program to other states and countries. For more information visit: http://www.spacedynamics.org/microlada/ or contact outreach@sdl.usu.edu.