When an Antares rocket carrying a Kamloops school’s science experiment was lost, it wasn’t just the work of school kids that went up in flames
When NASA’s unmanned Antares rocket blew up last week, the headlines did, too. Much of Kamloops discovered that four students from McGowan Park Elementary lost part of their seventh grade science experiment to the rocket’s explosion.
As it turns out, TRU science faculty assisted and mentored the younger students Kieren O’Neil, Ryan Watson, Jordan Brown and Hunter Galbraith as they designed an experiment to test gravity’s effect on the way crystals form.
Paul Hembling, principal of Bert Edwards Science and Technology School, explained that, “in a nutshell, TRU helped us by not only allowing our students to use the chemistry lab facilities on campus to prepare the tube, but also by providing our student team with all the required chemicals … [and] expertise.”
The boys used one of TRU’s chemistry labs to prepare five tubes that contained barium chloride on one end, sodium thiosulfate on the other, and water in the middle. Clamps within the tubes kept the chemicals separate until the boys were ready to combine them. Doing so caused the barium chloride and sodium thiosulfate – both water-soluble substances – to form solid, crystalized barium thiosulfate.
Their plan was to launch one of the tubes up to the International Space Station using the Antares rocket and study how the crystals would form in a zero gravity environment. The results would be compared to crystals formed on the four remaining tubes, still firmly planted on Earth.
“NASA’s done a lot of research on this, but most of the things they’ve done to form crystals have been by cooling solutions or by evaporating the liquid. The boys wanted to make a crystal by precipitation,” TRU chemistry instructor Sharon Brewer explained.
The boys received access to the Antares rocket through the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP), which also provided them with a microlaboratory aboard the International Space Station.
School District 73 fundraised $25,000 to reserve a space on the rocket and space station and then allowed local elementary and high schools to put together their own research proposals for the program.
The microgravity crystal experiment, which Brewer said the boys designed themselves, was the winning idea out of various other proposals that local elementary and high school students put together.
In the process of putting together their proposals, “each class approached one faculty member and we helped answer their questions,” Brewer said. She became involved when Kieren, Ryan, Jordan and Hunter approached her.
The three strongest proposals were sent to the U.S. where SSEP evaluated them.
“Once [the boys’] experiment was chosen, they needed more support,” she said. “When they decided they wanted to make a precipitate as their reaction, they asked TRU Chemistry for a bunch of solutions they could test.”
They chose to make barium thiosulfate crystals because the form differently depending on how quickly the barium chloride and sodium thiosulfate mix, according to Brewer.
“When you mix the solutions slowly in water, you get needle-like crystals, and when you mix them quickly they get a fluffy powder,” Brewer explained.
TRU decided to provide support for the experiment as an outreach initiative to engage youth in science.
“One of the key things is getting kids excited about science. The idea that something from Kamloops is going to space – that’s really cool. If that’s not something to get a kid excited, I don’t know what else is.”
When the boys were ready to prepare their tubes, they were given the opportunity to work remotely alongside a scientist from NanoRacks, LLC in Texas.
“They had to prepare the final experiment – the one that would get sent up in the rocket – under the supervision of a scientist from the company responsible for packing the payload that goes on the rocket,” Brewer explained.
The TRU lab they worked in had a ceiling-mounted camera that allowed them to Skype chat with the NanoRacks representative.
To prepare each of the five tubes, the students had to inject the chemicals into the tube using syringes, dry the tubes to avoid premature mixing and cut filters to the proper size of the tube. Each one took about 30 minutes to prepare.
Over the summer, TRU’s lab allowed NanoRacks to monitor the tubes for contamination and changes in temperature or PH levels.
Even though their fifth tube was destroyed in the Antares rocket’s explosion, Brewer said the boys, who are now high school students at Sahali Secondary School, will be able to use TRU’s lab to build and launch another one into space. SSEP has tentatively arranged for another rocket to carry their tube to the International Space Station on Dec. 11 this year.