With help from NASA, students launch experiment into space

Four students sit at a table in a classroom.

At 5:29 a.m. on June 21, before the sun had even reached the horizon, a NASA suborbital sounding rocket blasted off from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, reaching more than 70 miles above the Earth before it landed by parachute in the Atlantic Ocean. It carried a precious payload: the research project of UWM’s Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) team.

The launch was part of NASA’s and the Colorado Space Grant’s RockSat-C program. For a fee, NASA allows student groups to design their own experiments and send them up on one of the space agency’s rockets. The launch takes place during NASA’s annual Rocket Week, where students from across the country gather to present their experiments before their projects take off.

“Meeting all the other RockSat teams was a blast,” said physics major Kaitlin Krause, who also runs the UWM SEDS Instagram page. “Learning about all of the different projects happening and the different perspectives was eye-opening. We definitely found inspiration for the coming years, such as working towards a more complicated payload. It was great learning experience, and just plain awesome to be able to walk around a NASA facility talking to actual rocket scientists.”

Getting started in RockSat-C

When microbiology major Ryan Kisiolek attended Rocket Week two years ago, “There was somebody doing a biological experiment, and I thought, that is so cool! We have got to do that,” he recalled.

A plume of smoke follows the rocket into the sky.
A NASA sounding rocket carrying student research projects blasts off from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. (Photo courtesy of Bob Aloisi)

Kisiolek, a student at UW-Sheboygan at the time, began knocking on doors to find funding for his own project. NASA charges roughly $7,000 to reserve space on the rocket, and the students also have to buy their materials and pay for travel to Wallops to attend the launch.

Kisiolek joined forces with physics major Bob Aloisi, and, with several teammates, they raised the necessary funds, designed their experiment and attended the 2017 Rocket Week launch.

When Kisiolek and Aloisi transferred to UW-Milwaukee, they added some new faces. This year’s UWM SEDS team includes Kisiolek and Aloisi, Azia Barner (physics), Dan Cairns (mechanical engineering), Josh Janezick (UW-Sheboygan, mechanical engineering) Krause (geology and physics), Connor Nethen (electrical engineering and physics), Natasha Scannell (electrical engineering) and August Schuett (physics).

This year, their work was funded largely by a grant from the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium. The team also received funding from the UWM Foundation and the College of Letters & Science, alongside a travel grant from UWM Student Involvement and donations from faculty members in the Biological Sciences and Physics departments.

Cosmic radiation and DNA

The SEDS team repeated their experiment from last year, improving their design and hoping for more detailed results. They’re researching what happens to DNA when it’s bombarded with cosmic radiation.

A group stands in a field.
Bob Aloisi (from left), Kaitlin Krause, Azia Barner, Natasha Scannell and Connor Nethen smile after a successful launch at the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. (Photo courtesy of Dawn Erb)

“The DNA comes in a non-living form called plasmids,” Aloisi said. “They’re short snippets of genetic materials that contain genes from different organisms. We use a gene with antibiotic resistance and another gene from a jellyfish that glows under UV light.”

Now that their samples have been recovered from the rocket, the SEDS team will introduce the plasmids to living bacteria. By gauging whether the bacteria reproduce and exhibit the glow-in-the-dark gene and the antibiotic-resistance gene, the team will gain a better understanding of how gamma and beta cosmic radiation affect DNA.

Their preliminary results from last year’s launch were surprising. “What we expected to see was that the cosmic radiation would damage the DNA and so the genes wouldn’t transfer successfully,” Aloisi said. “We’d see fewer glowing colonies of bacteria. The opposite happened. The samples that we flew had more glowing colonies of bacteria.”

Building the payload

The payload – the structure housing the vials of plasmids and Geiger counters, used to measure radiation – had to match exacting NASA standards. The entire payload fit into a custom 3D-printed frame wired like Dr. Frankenstein’s Christmas tree.

The device includes lots of wires and connectors.
A closeup shows the experiment designed by UWM students. (UWM Photo/Elora Hennessey)

The data was collected and recorded on two micro-SD cards – two, because the team learned last year that they had to back up their data collection method when the SD-card broke in the 2017 launch.

Building the payload was no easy feat. “None of us have an electrical background. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing when we were first putting wires together,” said Krause. “It was definitely a lot of learning how it all fits together to make the printed circuit board. It’s been a journey.”

After the rocket was launched and landed in the ocean, the vessel was recovered by a local fisherman, nicknamed “Captain Tom.” The rocket was loaded onto a truck and delivered back to Wallops, where the UWM team picked up their payload. Now that their data is back in-hand, the team will be taking a closer look at the DNA using an infrared spectroscopy microscope. Azia Barner, mentored by physics professor Carol Hirschmugl, is leading the charge there.

“We’re going to test the plasmids that have been exposed to beta radiation and take stats on them and compare it to non-irradiated samples,” she said. “We’re going to show the difference between the chemical signatures in both. We can look at the chemical structure to see if the plasmids can transform.”

Hands-on research, invaluable experience

Working on the payload has given the UWM SEDS team a thorough education.

“In addition to mechanical engineering, there’s also programming involved. They have to do data analysis and statistics,” said David Kaplan, associate professor of physics and the team’s advisor. “And you get to see the thing you’ve worked on for a year go up and hopefully not explode.”

And, Kisiolek added, their research has potential implications for the medical field. If radiation actually increases the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, hospitals may have to rethink how they sterilize equipment. Aloisi hopes that, after more research, the group will be able to publish a paper with their findings.

Working on a project that flew on a NASA rocket was exciting.

“It was a little intimidating, but it’s been a great experience,” Kisiolek said. “And it’s cool knowing these plasmids went to space.”

To watch a video of the launch, visit https://bit.ly/2K7A59H.

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