UL-Lafayette professor’s experiment headed into space

Karl Hasenstein hopes to finally send his zero-gravity, plant-growing experiment into space this month, after more than 20 years of research and one experiment lost in the tragic explosion of Space Shuttle Columbia.

The project is extremely important to Hasenstein, a professor of biology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, who not only lost valuable research when the Columbia broke up during re-entry in 2003 but also the friends he had made working with the astronauts aboard the shuttle.

“We have done many lab studies,” he said, “but this is the first time we have a chance to go back into space for the actual experiment that was planned more than 15 years ago.”

To get his project in space, Hasenstein said he first had to submit a proposal convincing NASA that it was an important study. After approval, the experiment and its abilities were scrutinized by engineers.

“In this process, you repeatedly encounter unexpected problems that need to be solved over time,” he said. “That’s why the entire process can take a long time. This current experiment took over three years to get where we are.”

Hasenstein said he will be sending a number of Brassica rapa seedlings — a relative of the turnip — to the International Space Station aboard the SpaceX rocket Falcon 9.

While in orbit, the plants will be exposed to magnetic fields about 50 times stronger than a refrigerator magnet to study the effect of magnetic fields on root growth, via live-streamed video and post-flight studies.

Brassica rapa, he said, does not require soil to grow in, allowing for a clearer picture of the root growth.

The experiment’s main goal is to determine the role gravity has in a plant’s roots growing downward while the rest grows up, a phenomenon not yet explained by science, and to discover if magnets can be used to supplant gravity in outer space.

By performing the experiment aboard the space station, the force of gravity is removed from the equation, allowing scientists to gain a better understanding of how effective the magnets are at simulating gravity.

NASA’s description said the results could lead to the use of magnetic fields as a means to grow plants in the absence of gravity, which would allow astronauts to grow food and produce oxygen on extended space missions.

It will also further improve knowledge of how plants grow on Earth.

NASA delayed the launch of Falcon 9, originally scheduled for Sunday, to March 30, which has also stalled the experiment hitching a ride on the ship to the space station.

The mission, dubbed SpaceX-3, is the third of 12 scheduled missions to resupply and deliver research materials to the space station.

Hasenstein said the delay was not much of a concern to the study, and it certainly hadn’t dampened his spirits.

“That’s the nature of space business,” he said. “It’s quite exciting to see this come to fruition, to finally see it taking off. Hopefully, it returns successfully.”