April 29, 2022 — When NASA’s Blue Origin rocket launches in January 2023, its cargo will include a 4-by-4-by-8-inch container that weighs a little more than a pound.
Inside that container will be two sponges, a syringe, a motherboard, two cameras, LED light strips and the intelligence and curiosity of six students at Arizona State University’s Preparatory Academy Polytechnic STEM High School.
Those six students — Deaglan Salado, Hafsa Kaysan, Samantha Llagas, Elijah Linman, Ryan Robinson and Sawyer Ganes — were winners in NASA’s TechRise Challenge and are being given $1,500 to design an experiment that will take place during the January flight.
The experiment, as titled in the three-page written presentation sent to NASA: “How will Hydrophobic and Non-Hydrophobic Sponges React with Water in Microgravity?”
Before getting into sponges and space, it should be noted what the six students already accomplished just by having their project chosen. Six hundred schools from across the country sent in entries, and schools could send in more than one entry. (ASU Poly submitted more than a dozen). Of those hundreds of entries, only 57 were chosen.
Robinson: “We submitted it, and then I was thinking nothing was going to happen after that.”
Ganes: “We all submitted it just for our grade for our class, and when we were chosen, we were like, ‘How did this happen?’”
Llagas: “It’s just so weird.”
Speaking of weird, how does a high school student come up with the idea to see if sponges absorb water in space like they do, well, in your bathroom?
Teacher Irvin Goutcher said each of his classes had a brainstorming session, ideas were tossed around, someone mentioned sponges, and then the project-based learning class, which the six students attend, created the plan and wrote the paper and diagram submitted to NASA.
The experiment, while sounding a bit intimidating — Non-hydrophobic sponges? Microgravity? — really isn’t. Hydrophobic means waterproof. Hydrophobic sprays for, say, waterproofing shoes can be found on Amazon.
One of the sponges that goes into the container will be sprayed. (And, yes, we’re talking about a sponge you might purchase at Walmart). The other sponge will be non-hydrophobic. The experiment will determine how the different sponges react in microgravity.
“We just want to know what the effect of gravity is on that,” Goutcher said. “Is the gravity what’s pulling the water into the sponge, or is it the effect the sponge has with some sort of capillary action where it will absorb the water whether there’s gravity or not?”
The results of the experiment could have practical applications in future space missions.
“We know that storing water in space is one of the things NASA wants to achieve for future travel because people need water,” Kaysan said. “It could have many uses, even for growing vegetation.”
While the premise of the experiment is simple enough, the execution of it is exceedingly difficult. All of the items that have to fit into the container — the cameras, sponges, lights, syringe, etc. — can’t weigh more than a pound because of the weight limit set by NASA. The students are thinking of using micro-cameras that fit onto a dog’s collar.
The experiment will be programmed automatically so it will detect the launch, and then activate when the 11- to 16-minute flight hits microgravity.
“We have one shot,” Salado said.
The syringe will be powered by an actuator that controls the timing of the injection. The students will watch the experiment from ASU Poly, assuming the cameras in the container work, and record it on a micro-SD memory card. Once the rocket returns to Earth, NASA will ship the container to the students — hopefully.
“They said that part, they don’t know, because sometimes rockets land nice and sometimes they don’t,” Goutcher said.
Via Zoom, the students met with NASA officials for the first time on Monday. Their completed container box has to be shipped to NASA by the end of September, but Goutcher is hoping the students will have it finished by the end of May, to coincide with the end of the semester.
Until then, the six students will write code for the motherboard, find sponges suitable for the experiment, test pressurized syringes and appreciate every day that NASA is taking their idea into space.
“Yeah,” Robinson said. “That’s cool.”
Top photo: Students at ASU Prep Poly will build a 500-gram, 4-by-4-by-8-inch enclosed experiment to test how hydrophobic and non-hydrophobic sponges react with water in microgravity. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News