Some children ask Santa for a pony. Others want video games. But Christmas came early for a group of San Marino High School science prodigies, with a special delivery from the International Space Station.
The package: a plastic tube containing bacteria grown in space, opened Dec. 15 in a laboratory at Caltech's Beckman Behavioral Biology building.
Earlier this year students designed a test of how decreased gravity and exposure to radiation outside Earth's atmosphere would affect bacteria growth. The National Center for Earth and Space Science delivered samples prepared at the school to astronauts aboard the space station, who activated the experiment.
Now it's up to the students to measure the results.
“I think [the bacteria] will be weaker,” said junior Annie Surman while students mixed solutions to test the resistance of microbes grown in space against an Earth-bound control sample. “All these studies show that space is hard on the human body.”
Sophomore Lauren Thai offered an opposing theory that the hardships of space may have strengthened the microorganisms' resistance.
Results may prove inconclusive, however, due to a logistical error.
The plastic tube that carried the experiment to space contained a growth-activating solvent and two sealed glass vials, one holding the bacteria and the other filled with a growth-arresting solution.
The astronauts were instructed to break the bacteria vial and release its contents into the tube of growth solvent, then squeeze the other end of the tube to snap open the growth arrestor. But the tube was loaded in upside-down, causing astronauts to hit their marks in reverse and stunt the bacteria's growth, said school Science Department Chair Wyeth Collo.
Despite the snafu, sophomore Nicholas Truong remained optimistic that students got enough space-exposed bacteria to yield some results.
Conclusive findings or no, the project “had a big impact on my life,” said Truong, one of several San Marino students who presented experiment proposals last year at a conference in Washington, D.C. “It gives you direct access to how the science community really works. Not every program allows you to walk into Caltech and do something like this.”
Caltech senior research scientist Ali Khoshnan was on hand to help the teens transfer microbes to testing plates and apply antibacterial agents.
Because the experiment did not go as expected, students will likely be given the chance to launch a retest in May, Collo said.
Students are also planning a new mission — this one testing the speed with which skin cells divide in space, explained junior Jennifer Jiang.
“We want to know how skin cells will heal if humans are injured in space, and if they grow at a slower rate is there a medicine that will speed up growth,” Jiang said. “When people think of space they just think of rockets. We're looking at ways to improve life on Earth and the possibility of life in space.”
Follow Joe Piasecki on Twitter: @JoePiasecki.