Freshmen preparing to launch termite experiment to International Space Station
Two FCPS freshmen, teamed with three other students, have designed a science experiment deemed worthy of sending to the International Space Station (ISS). Kiera Fehr of Henry Clay High School and Rosalie Huff of Frederick Douglass High School are awaiting word on the timing for their project build and the rocket launch, which they are invited to observe at Cape Canaveral.
“I have been deeply passionate about space and science for my whole life in hopes of working for NASA or SpaceX someday. This would be one of if not the biggest accomplishment for me so far – especially because it’s on such a high level,” Kiera said of the ISS experiment. “It’s amazing that something we did could go that far,” Rosalie added. “It will certainly be exciting to find out the results of the experiment.”
Just before winter break, the girls’ team learned that their proposal was the overall winner in a national competition called "Go For Launch!" coordinated by Higher Orbits, a Virginia-based nonprofit that inspires high school students through project-based STEAM learning experiences. Their work had begun in early October, when they attended a Higher Orbits session here at the Living Arts & Science Center, which drew students from several states. Kiera, Rosalie, and their teammates had only a few hours to brainstorm topics.
“We were looking for methane contributors because global warming was a big inspiration. After noticing that termites produce approximately 11 percent of the world’s methane annually (20 million tons), we developed a project which will gather information on termites’ methane production, neurological development of termites in microgravity, and effects of radiation exposure,” Kiera explained.
Via Space Tango, the students will monitor the Southeastern drywood termites throughout the roughly 30-day experiment. “Termites, when they digest, produce methane sort of like cows,” Rosalie said. “We’re looking at whether being in space impacts that, and along the way we’re looking at ways to tie it back to the greenhouse effect and try to help the environment.”
Space Tango, whose lab is near downtown Lexington, designs and builds integrated systems that facilitate microgravity research and manufacturing. Through a general research platform on the International Space Station, the company offers a web-based portal by which users like Kiera and Rosalie can interact with and retrieve their data.
“Everything has to fit within a four-inch cube. We’ve come up with some ideas about the containers and sensors to pick up how much methane there is,” Rosalie said. “We have to get everything OK’ed by NASA before we send it up,” Kiera added. “We can’t just build something and put it on a rocket.”
Danielle Rosales, a marketing and sales associate at Space Tango, said the payload will be built off the students’ criteria. “They have defined the standards and the goals based on their hypotheses. We provide feedback and recommendations. From there, our team will begin to design the official payload. The CubeLab is typically the size of a tissue box. The termites will be in there along with camera, lighting, and anything else the students deem necessary,” Rosales said. “We typically check in with them as lead scientists, and we consider them co-investigators on benchmark dates to make sure things are on track.”
Rosales noted the ISS launch is a tremendous experience for students like Kiera and Rosalie. “Space itself is very far-fetched and not something you get to interact with day to day. It’s important to show how accessible this is to anyone despite their background,” she said. “Sometimes they just need that first opportunity to remind them how possible it is.”