Two remote-manned laboratories – expected to aid local research – are destined for the International Space Station and will launch into orbit Sunday.
Washington State University scientists will have access to the NASA-funded Cold Atom Laboratory and the Final Frontiers Plant Habitat projects, which investigate the behavior of particles in a quantum state and how plants develop in a microgravity environment.
Both will blast off from Wallop’s Flight Facility in Virginia aboard Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft around 1:30 a.m. Pacific Time.
Norman Lewis, a regents professor at WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry, who is leading the plant habitat study, said their experiments will provide insight into how plants adapt and develop in a weightless environment.
“One of the reasons we’re looking at this is to try and understand how we can tailor plants for colonization on the moon or on Mars or tailor plants for very, very long spaceflight exploration,” Lewis said. “The Advanced Plant Habitat and devices like this are really so that one can go off on long-range expeditions and long-term colonization and be able to grow these organisms in – and really protect it against – extreme environments.”
Plant life is essential for long-term space exploration and extraterrestrial colonization for a number of reasons, Lewis said, noting astronauts are in a contained environment and must recycle everything right down to their sweat.
He said plant life can aid in the replenishing of air and water systems and provide food during long-term expeditions.
Lewis said another facet of the experiment is to determine whether the amounts of lignin – an inedible, rigid material in plants that helps them stand erect – can be reduced in microgravity without harming the performance of the plant.
“We’ll harvest them at four weeks and six weeks and then return them frozen to ground where we will then conduct an analysis of them,” Lewis said.
He said researchers will then compare their results to an identical experiment conducted on the Earth’s surface. Lewis said his work will be a portion of a consortium effort with researchers from the University of New Mexico and the Los Alamos and Pacific Northwest national laboratories.
While the Cold Atom Laboratory may not aid in anything as exciting as space exploration, WSU physicists Peter Engle and Maren Mossman say it will expand the known universe of quantum mechanics.
Engle said CAL will use lasers and other techniques to sap energy from clouds of atoms, cooling them to about a billionth of a degree above absolute zero.
“Think about an atom like a billiard ball that’s rolling along on the table or something that’s our classical physics,” Engel said. “When we go down to these ultracool temperatures, the physics changes and a theory called quantum mechanics comes into play, and what you see then is effects like, for example, atoms starting to behave like waves.”
Engel said studying these particles in space provides a number of advantages over conducting the same research on Earth.
For one, he said, space is very cold, which means the cloud of wavelike atoms will be warmed less quickly, allowing them to study them in a quantum state for longer.
Engel said the negligible gravity aboard the ISS means the sample of atoms will stay suspended in view of a microscope for much longer.
“On Earth if we drop a cloud of atoms, it falls out of our view in about 13 milliseconds,” Mossman said. “On the ISS we’re able to look at things from a much longer time scale by factors of 10 or 100.”
Mossman said the atom cloud is expected to remain within view for as long as 10 seconds, allowing them to study quantum behaviors more in depth.
Engel said furthering human understanding of quantum mechanics will be essential to future generations of technology.
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