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Learn How One High School Sent Experiments to the ISS

Citizen Science electronics featured microgravity projects

zero gravity research on the international space station Werner Vavken is the AMSE Advisory Board Chairman, Engineering Instructor and Chaplain of the Valley Christian Schools and The Quest Institute for Christian Education. He started and ran the program that sent the first ever high school experiment to the ISS.

NanoRacks-VCHS Plant Seed Growth

In a joint venture between NanoRacks LLC and the Quest Institute, Valley Christian High School created a plant seed growth experiment that utilized the NanoRacks Platform on board the International Space Station (ISS). The Plant Seed Growth experiment that launched in January 2011, marked the first ever high school MicroLab experiment to take place aboard the ISS. Students built a box about 4 x 4 x 6 inches, equipped with a microcomputer, lights and an incubator. Plants were grown in the incubator which was equipped with a pressurized water delivery system that was designed by the students using an IV bag and a microcomputer controlled valve. The technology that makes this possible is called NanoRacks and consists of platforms approximately 17 x 9 x 20 inches and weighing about 12 pounds. The platform is designed for use within the pressurized space station environment. Each platform may link up to 16 modules using a simple USB connector which both provides data connectivity and power to the modules. The VCHS team created a self-contained experiment module that plugs directly into the NanoRacks Platform. The module contains an internal camera that provides snapshots of the plant as it grows allowing them to monitor the effects of microgravity on plant growth over the course of 30 days.


VCHS Plant Seed Growth was part of NanoRacks’ DreamUP! program which is sponsored by the Conrad Foundation.  DreamUP! gives schools the opportunity to enroll with the program and take part in space exploration inspiring the next generation to pursue careers in AMSE and space technologies. More recently, VCHS along with 7 other schools and student organizations have developed MicroLab experiments for the March 2013 launch: Table of HighSchools Vavken notes that these aren’t just highschool experiments, but real science projects that can contribute to our knowledge of space. In a previous year, one student team plated gold and bronze on to stainless steel rods. This was the first time anyone, including NASA, had ever plated metal in space. This last group saw even saw a contribution from the Girl Scouts of Hawaii who having had success with their microgreen plant experiment are planning to spread interest across the Girl Scouts of America. With the addition of a school in Finland in Fall 2013, the program is now international. DreamUP! is part of a larger initiative to allow the foundation for the ISS to become an international laboratory, by enabling the future generation of scientists and engineers the ability to gain hands on experience in space exploration while they are still in high school. The long term goal is to pave the way for students to make real contributions extending their reach beyond the classrooms and into space.

High School Students Involved with Real Science

At VCHS, where the program is in its fourth year, the program typically receives between thirty to forty students a year. That number is broken up into 4 teams of about seven to ten student members each with its own student elected leader. Each team functions like a corporation, with one student leading the payload or experiment side, one handling PR with the local media outlets, and another student to handle documentation. The project teams are given milestones to complete and ensure they make the ultimate deadline of the rocket launch date. In this way, the students are gaining hands on experience not only in science and engineering, but in finance, PR and project management as well. One of the challenges Vavken faced in creating this program was dealing with the fact that it was an afterschool program. The kids would not be receiving any grades for their work and would have to actually be interested in the program in order for it to be a success. It can sometimes be challenging to keep the students focused on the end goal. Fortunately, it isn’t that hard to get kids excited about space, and the rewards for participating in such a high school program are very real. One student received a four year full ride to MIT. “It’s real science doing real ground breaking work and it’s opening doors for students into post-secondary education that is literally second to none.” – Vavken

Quest 1CubeSat

This year, Vavken plans to have his students design and launch a satellite from the space station. The Quest 1 is a CubeSat and is a personal project of Vavken that he has worked on with students over the last couple of years. They already built the ground tracking station and have all the hardware required to track other satellites. The students built the ground station from scratch. They did everything from physically building the antennas from kits, to erecting the tower to placing connectors on the coaxial cables and running them down to the ground station. 20 federally licensed high school students have been tracking other satellites in preparation for the eventual launch of Quest 1 late December or early 2014.

Long Term Vision

The International Space Station is officially open for business, and several private companies have already leaped at the opportunity to create low-earth orbiting platforms and vehicles. The climate is ripe for new interests to enter into the space age, and people like Vavken, NanoRacks and VCHS are hoping to open up this new opportunity to as many people as possible. The end goal is to create a commercial climate that allows everyone from students to researchers, and individuals to participate. NanoRacks aims to bring low cost, standardized hardware and quality customer service to the space industry. Their platforms enable ‘Plug and Play’ by allowing CubeSats to plug directly into the system.  If you have your own experiments in mind, are familiar with CubeSat design and can program with Arduino you can easily sign up and take part in space exploration through NanoRacks.

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