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Eagan, Apple Valley Students Will Blast Science Experiment into Space

Several local students at Minnehaha Academy are testing polymer formation in microgravity—by sending an experiment to the International Space Station.

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A small group of Minnesota high school students, including one from Apple Valley and two from Eagan, are earning the envy of seasoned scientists as they prepare to watch their experiment launched into space.

A 16-member team from Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis will send an experiment to the International Space Station (ISS), where it will reside for one month. The team was selected through an application process last spring and has been working since the beginning of the school year to design and finalize their experiment. Included in the team are seniors Linnea Graham and Haley Anderson of Eagan and sophomore Erik Dahlman of Apple Valley.

“It’s really exciting, and it’s incredible to think that we have done something that will have a big impact,” Dahlman said. He foresees their experiment helping future space exploration with repairs that might need to be done while in space.

The teens have been designing an experiment to test polymer formation in microgravity. Polymers are used in making many everyday materials, including plastic bottles, nylon, paint, adhesives, diapers, Spandex and credit cards. Basically, they will be testing how something like paint reacts when it is subjected to the very low gravity present on the space station.

The catch? The experiment must fit within a 2-inch-by-2-inch-by 4-inch micro lab because space on the ISS is at a premium. To make matters more challenging, the experiment must use no more energy than that used by a two-watt Christmas bulb.

Minnehaha Academy is the first school outside California and Hawaii to be given the chance to send an experiment to space, and one of only eight schools in the entire nation with this opportunity.

The students partnered with a team of mentors and Minnehaha alumni, including scientists, to work through designs and challenges. The students admit it has been a strange experience to have scientists who have been working in the field for decades envious of the chance the Minnehaha students have been given.

Anderson calls the project “unexplored territory.”

“There’s just so much we don’t know because everything we do in science we do on earth,” she said. “We don’t know how it will work in space.”

The students were split into three smaller groups to work on different components of the experiment: the software, prototype and mechanical teams. Graham and Anderson were part of the prototype team.

“Our job, once we got the basic premise of the experiment, was how to make it feasible,” Graham said. “As we continue the process, it is focusing in and narrowing it down to come up with the best design to implement what we want to see. I really enjoyed it, mostly because it’s not like in school, where there is one right answer. There are so many unknowns. No one has done this in space before.”

The students must finish their experiment by the end of January. Then it will be shipped to California for further tests before it launches to the ISS on March 7. The team will be anxiously watching the launch and then waiting for feedback. While the experiment resides on the Space Station for one month, the team will receive pictures about every three days, but they won’t know the results of the experiment until it lands back on earth. Then they will be able to evaluate exactly what happened in that tiny lab.

“I still think we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Graham said. “Deadlines approach faster than you want them to, but it’s a good kind of pressure.”

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