Planting the seeds of a scientific outlook on life

10th July 2015 at 01:00
Royal Horticultural Society enlists pupils for space project

One moment the unmanned rocket was tearing through the Earth's atmosphere at an amazing 3,100mph, the next it had splintered into tiny pieces.

Mid-afternoon, roughly two weeks ago, the SpaceX Falcon 9, a cargo rocket destined for the International Space Station, exploded two minutes after lift-off at Cape Canaveral in Florida. The capsule contained two tonnes of supplies including a docking port, spacesuit and a set of water filters.

Less vital, but nonetheless precious to Scottish schools, was a 2kg bag of rocket salad seed. This bag was an integral part of an experiment due to run next spring in thousands of UK schools, looking at whether space travel affects plant growth.

Now the Royal Horticultural Society - the body behind the scheme - is seeking to reassure schools that the problem is under control. Schools communication officer Alana Tapsell said the RHS was working with the UK Space Agency to secure a slot on another cargo rocket. It was hopeful that another batch of seed would make its way to the International Space Station (ISS) in the autumn.

"The seed will still come back at the same time, it will just be in space for a bit less time than planned," Ms Tapsell said.

The Royal Horticultural Society's Rocket Science project was unveiled earlier this year at the Chelsea Flower Show. The aim is to send rocket salad seeds into space as part of British astronaut Major Tim Peake's mission to the ISS in November.

When the seeds return they will be sent to thousands of UK schools, alongside a batch from the same cultivar that have stayed on Earth. Over the following months pupils will cultivate and compare the seeds; the results of the nationwide "citizen science" experiment will then be analysed.

"This work feeds into what scientists are doing just now looking into growing food in space. Does it work? And will we be able to do it in the future?" Ms Tapsell said.

Astronauts on board the ISS are currently growing lettuce in a "space garden" designed to take up very little room and to use minimal amounts of energy. The plants are grown in an expandable chamber under red, blue and green LEDs.

Determining whether the food is safe to eat is the primary goal, but if the gardens are successful Nasa has said they could also be used to provide recreation for crew members on long missions. Ultimately, the experiments could even offer an insight into plant cultivation methods on Earth.

Growth in learning

The RHS Rocket Science project is "very Curriculum for Excellence", according to Gregor Steele, head of physics and technology at the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre. The project is interdisciplinary, raises issues for pupils to debate such as the merits of space exploration, and is "really good experimental science work".

Mr Steele added that space was a powerful way to get pupils hooked on science, confessing that he had been drawn to science himself because of the Apollo space programme in the 1960s and early 1970s.

"These pupils are being genuine researchers - we don't know what's going to happen and they are working in collaboration with other people," he said. "That's removing the stereotype of the lone inventor in his shed and giving them an insight into the real world of science, which is about massive collaboration between different disciplines, institutions and teams of people."

Ms Tapsell hopes that the disappointment of SpaceX Falcon 9 exploding will make success, when it comes, all the sweeter for schools. There are, however, no guarantees: this was Nasa's third lost resupply mission in eight months.

As Nasa head Charles Bolden pointed out in the wake of the latest failure, "Space flight is an incredible challenge." It really is rocket science.

To join the RHS Rocket Science project, visit bit.lyRHSrocket

`These seeds have been to outer space'

"Please tell us those weren't our seeds on that rocket." That was the response of Rose Ann Carlin's class the first time they saw her after the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket went up in flames.

But the Royal Horticultural Society quickly reassured them that the Rocket Science project was still going ahead.

Ms Carlin, pictured, is the literacy coordinator at Hillside School in Fife, an independent school currently catering for 30 boys with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. The project is perfect for her pupils, she says. "A lot of these boys have a history of failure in the classroom. You take away these fears if you start somewhere else."

Beginning outdoors is ideal, so a project looking at the impact of space travel on plants suits them down to the ground, Ms Carlin explains.

"These seeds have been to outer space and when they come back to Earth we're going to see if we can get them to grow. It's just so exciting."

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