GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Flax seeds may be small, but they’re versatile.
That makes them potentially perfect for outer space, where in the proper environment they could generate food and fabric for future space travelers.
Two Stockton University students, Valkyrie Falciani, 23, of Hammonton, and Danielle Ertz, 22 of Woodlynne, hope to learn just how useful flax can be with an experiment scheduled to be tested this summer in the International Space Station.
Titled “Spores in Space: The Effects of Microgravity on Endomycorrhizae,” the project was chosen from among three submitted by Stockton students to the Student Space Flight Experiment Program run by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. Initially, 24 students developed 11 proposals. They were reviewed by faculty to pick the top three.
Falciani and Ertz said they started with about 10 ideas each, then whittled them down with assistance from Associate Professor of Biology Tara Luke, their project mentor.
The experiment is a bit risky, since they are using two bio components, flax and the fungus spores. “If one dies, they both die,” Falciani said.
But growing food in space is a big issue, so they felt the risk was worth it.
The students have already run into a problem with mold, and spent Monday cleaning out contaminated test tubes and preparing them for sterilization. But one tube was growing nicely, showing some roots.
“Thankfully that happened early, when we have time to start over,” Falciani said.
The students work on the project twice a week and other students have volunteered to assist.
“I just thought it was so cool that we’d get to send it into space,” said Francisca Ekekwe, 28, of Egg Harbor Township.
Their process involves mixing flax seeds with the fungus to see how they interact. Flax has already been grown on the space station, so it is a good risk. The fungus was chosen because of its ability to form symbiotic relationships with plants and possibly help them grow. The results could promote more research into agriculture in space.
The experiment has to fit in a specifically sized tube, adding to the challenge. The students’ experiment will have three sections containing the fungus, flax seeds and distilled water.
Once at the space station, the astronauts will break open the clamps to mix the materials and see what happens. The results from the space station will be compared with the experiments at Stockton.
“No matter what the results are, we will get more information,” Luke said.
The experiment is scheduled to leave on a SpaceX flight in August from Florida. Students plan to attend the launch and later present their results at the annual conference for the program at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
In 2015, Ocean City High School students sent an experiment to the space station designed to determine the rate at which bacteria multiply in microgravity. That project also related to future food production in space.