GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — After five weeks in space, an agricultural experiment designed by two Stockton University students has made it safely back to Earth and to the college for analysis.
The experiment was designed by Valkyrie Falciani, of Hammonton, and Danielle Ertz, of Woodlynne in Camden County.
The experiment went up to the International Space Station from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in August with 20 other science projects designed by students from across the county. They were part of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education’s Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. This was the 11th mission for the program.
Falciani and Ertz designed the experiment, “Spores in Space,” as part of a Stockton class last fall led by associate professor of biology Tara Luke. Luke served as a mentor for the students during the design process.
The students used the versatile flax seed to examine the effect of microgravity on the process known as mycorrhizae, which is a symbiotic relationship between plants and fungi.
“We want to look at how efficient it is in space,” Falciani said.
Falciani said this information could be useful in future long-term space travel, when astronauts would need to be able to grow their own food in space.
Now, Luke is helping Falciani through the analysis portion along with student Hannah Sandler, 20, of Flemington in Hunterdon County. Sandler is filling in for Ertz, who has since graduated.
“We’re in post-production,” Falciani said. “We fix our seeds and roots, which means we stopped all biological processes.”
They will then use a dark stain to tint the seeds to more easily examine the experiment.
“We’re going to take it from there,” Falciani said. “We’re looking for spots where the fungus has infected the roots.”
Falciani, 24, already has a degree in marine biology and is working on her second degree from Stockton, in teaching.
“It’s really cool because this is an educational program,” she said. “It’s a chance for students to get involved in their own science, and that’s something I want to bring into my classroom.”
Luke said the students have a chance to work without pre-conceived outcomes or procedures.
“I’ve learned as much as these guys have,” she said.
Luke said Falciani and Ertz’s experiment is useful because “regardless of what the results are, it still tells us something.”
Falciani said they plan to do a formal write-up of the results of their experiment, which will be published online at Stockton’s Student Spaceflight Experiments Program website.
Falciani said being involved in the program has been a surreal and exciting experience. She had the chance to speak at the program’s conference in Washington, D.C., this summer and travel to Florida for the rocket launch.
“It’s been such an amazing opportunity,” she said.