JONESBORO, Ark – A little bit of Arkansas will soon be orbiting the earth at over 17,000 miles per hour as students from Arkansas State University have their science experiment placed on board the International Space Station.

The experiment is being sent to the space station on a July 14 night launch of a cargo resupply ship to the ISS. The cargo will include ISS supplies as well as two science projects, the one from ASU and one from Stanford students.

The launch will be a milestone of a project which began in 2020 as ASU students presented to NASA’s Student Payload Opportunity with Citizen Science an experiment combining biology and engineering disciplines which was selected for inclusion.

The ASU experiment was one of five scheduled for 2022, its inclusion bringing a $20,000 NASA grant to the team. Other than ASU and Stanford, additional experiments were selected for 2022 from Columbia, Idaho and New Hampshire at Manchester universities.  

The experiment, “”Microgravity Environment Impact on Plastic Biodegradation by Galleria mellonella,” in the student’s proposal is described as an experiment to discover the ability of waxworms to degrade plastics in space. The experiment could help provide answers for a more sustainable environment on earth and future, long-term space travel.

All students will be on hand for the launch. The biology students are driving the waxworms to the launch site.

The team is made up of Benjamin Whitfield of Little Rock, who is an electrical engineering major and team leader; Katherine Willis of Blue Springs, Missouri, Claire Greene of Conway and Hannah Seats of Brookland, who are biological sciences majors, and Landon Perdue of Brookland, Mason Rhodes of Benton, and Jacob Oster of Bay, who are mechanical engineering majors.

“They [the students] all have multitasked on this project and all team members have been involved in most all aspects,” Maureen Dolan, ASU associate professor of molecular biology said. “Each member took lead on various aspects of the project, from designing and conducting waxworm preliminary experiments, to the experimental prototyping and build of the housing unit, leading curriculum development for citizen science and outreach activities, to social media management.”

The experiment was initially scheduled for launch last December, but students requested a delay to the July launch to optimize the experiment’s design, including fitting into its size allocation, and making pre-flight tests.

Additional issues were acquiring the needed computer systems, delayed due to supply chain issues.

“This project taught the students how science research is a dynamic process,” Dolan said. “As the students got into the design of the unit, it became clear that the number of replicates they could carry out in this small nanomodule [a 10 by 10 by 15-centimeter box] was limited, compared to what would have been possible in an earth-based experiment.”

“The support from our community, including too many at A-State faculty and staff to thank by name, is what has made this project so much fun for our team, for our Citizen Scientists at Nettleton STEAM and Blessed Sacrament Schools in Jonesboro, and for everyone who has a love for space,” Dolan said.

The ISS began its planning process in 1986 and its initial module was launched in 1998. Fifteen countries across five space agencies operate the station. Over 2,800 experiments have been conducted on it. As an ongoing experiment about life in zero-gravity, the ISS is providing foundational knowledge needed to develop manned bases on other planets, which NASA states is its next step in space exploration.