By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

Mealworms in space

Marcus Larson/News-RegisterEASA student Tyler Branson picks out six new mealworms after the original scheduled launch was moved back to June 9, requiring the students to prepare a new capsule.
Marcus Larson/News-Register
EASA student Tyler Branson picks out six new mealworms after the original scheduled launch was moved back to June 9, requiring the students to prepare a new capsule.

But they’re still gravity-bound, waiting for the next launch of a vehicle headed to the International Space Station. They had been scheduled on a May 1 trip; now the target date is June 9.

“It’s not our private rocket, so we can’t just say ‘let’s go,” said Hazel Findley, a junior in the Engineering and Aerospace Science Academy.

EASA students sent their project, complete with mealworms, to California to be packaged with other experiments for the May 1 launch. Because of the delay, it’s already been returned once so they could refresh the bugs, she said.

Mac High was chosen last summer to receive a NASA space grant and take part in a project that places experiments on the ISS. They are working in partnership with Valley Christian High School in California, as well as with scientists from NASA, the Evergreen Space Museum, Intel, Linfield College, Oregon State University and Chemeketa Community College.

Each high school can send an experiment, which must fit into a tiny 2x2x4-inch nano container. The experiments will fly for 30 days, then return to Earth so students can analyze the results.

Because so many EASA students were interested in the project, two teams designed experiments -- one a mineral separation trial and the other, the one involving mealworms, a biological experiment. Both experiments received high marks; the biological one was chosen to make the trip into space.

“To know it gets to go ... that’s hard to put into words,” said Findley, obviously excited. “It makes it real.”

Findley’s group decided on the biological experiment because it’s likely humans may someday need to know whether they can live in space. “If we’re going to colonize another planet, we need a delicate ecosystem, like we have on earth. Insects are definitely part of that,” she said.

So the students decided to see how insects handle microgravity, considering their developmental cycle, hardiness, activity level and food and water needs. “We want to figure out as much as we can about them,” said Hailey Sahagun, also a junior.

Initially, students planned to use dermestid beetles. But not everyone was a fan of the creatures, which are used in taxidermy to clean flesh from bone.

“They scared some of the moms,” Sahagun said.

After much discussion, Findley said, the team decided on darkling beetle mealworms, instead. “They’re cute as an insect can be,” Sahagun said.

Not only are they less creepy, the students said; the darkling beetle mealworms also will work better in the experiment.

Both test groups of the worms had successful reproductive patterns in the EASA classroom, located in the space museum, Sahagun said.

Now, senior Jon Hakala said, students want to compare the mealworms that have been to space with a group remaining at the museum. They’ll be able to do that after their experiement returns to Earth in July.

Since Hakala graduates June 6, he may not be able to participate in the analysis phase of the project. He plans to be in Alaska looking for an electrician’s apprenticeship.

But other EASA students and teacher intend to come to school to finish the project.

“It’s hard to say what will happen,” Sahagun said. “I think they will reproduce, but I’m not sure what the second generation will be like.”

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