JONESBORO, Ark. — A group of Arkansas students reached for the stars Thursday night as their experiment docked to the International Space Station.
Seven Arkansas State University students have been working on grant research for two years before watching it carried away in person at a Space-X rocket launch in Florida.
We got the dirt on what they sent to space, and it is worms, specifically waxworm larvae. 32 of them which could potentially pave the way for sustainable deep space travel.
“None of us thought we would be doing space research let alone as undergrad students,” explained Conway native Claire Greene, a senior biological science major.
She and her classmates made a proposal to NASA’s Student Payload Opportunity with Citizen Science (SPOCS) program in December of 2020. The competition went from 19 universities to 10 which pitched their ideas.
Ultimately, NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement selected A-State’s (SPOCS) project as one of five to be carried out in 2022. The team was among five selected to receive $20,000 NASA grants, with the other winning university teams coming from Columbia, Stanford, Idaho, and New Hampshire at Manchester.
“We were working against really big schools, and so little Arkansas State, we’re super proud,” admitted associate professor of molecular biology Dr. Maureen Dolan, who accompanied students to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to prepare for and watch the launch.
Claire Green, Dr. Maureen Dolan, and Hannah Seats handpicked the “worm-onauts” for the experiment. But why waxworms? Biological science major. Hannah Seats of Brookland has the answer.
“This larva has a microbiome in its gut that allows it to biodegrade plastics,” Seats stated.
This team was joined by Benjamin Whitfield of Little Rock, an electrical engineering major and team leader; Katherine Willis of Blue Springs, Mo., and Landon Perdue of Brookland, Mason Rhodes of Benton, and Jacob Oster of Bay, who are mechanical engineering majors.
Starting as sophomores working remotely during a pandemic, now seniors with a tight bond, they joined NASA to make a box no bigger than half a loaf of bread.
“We want to fit as much science as possible into a very small vessel,” Green said.
Inside the package are cameras, microcomputers, and little habitats with plastic and food for the 21-day journey.
“Most of their life will be spent in space,” Green explained.
In about a month the data will be sent back to Arkansas State University for analysis.
The research took a wormhole town to put together, even elementary students pitched in.
Dr. Dolan expressed, “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.”
If the worms degrade plastic in space as they have on earth, it could mean a more sustainable future in Arkansas but also wherever our dreams can take us.
As Seats put it, “The opportunities for that are beyond endless.”
As neat as it is to imagine worms living side by side with astronauts forever, that’s not the end goal of this experiment. The waxworm is the best host for that plastic-eating bacterial community at the moment. Finding a means of hosting it may have to be the next way young Arkansas scientists and engineers shoot for the stars.
You can also see NASA’s live stream of the launch along with a live broadcast interview featuring the SPOCS team.