Sirisha Bandla reached inside a bag attached to her thigh on Sunday morning and pulled out a plastic tube holding a mustard seedling and a chemical preservative.
The preservative enveloped the tiny plant as she turned a knob on one end of the tube, stopping all biological activity. She operated on two similar tubes over the following several minutes at precisely timed moments.
If it hadn’t been for the unusual environment, it may have been an average experiment. But Bandla, Virgin Galactic’s vice president of government affairs and research operations, was several miles above the Earth’s surface, pioneering a brand-new type of study.
“In a year or two or 10 years, we could look back and say, ‘Wow, that was the first time someone experimented with suborbital space?’ Rob Ferl, a biologist at the University of Florida who helped develop the experiment, said, “Holy cow, I can’t believe there was ever a time we didn’t do this.”
The plant experiment was carried out by Bandla aboard the SpaceShipTwo spaceplane, which took her and three other Virgin Galactic-affiliated passengers to the edge of space in a historic moment for space tourism.
Richard Branson, the creator of Virgin Galactic, flew into space just nine days before his billionaire competitor Jeff Bezos, who is set to travel on his own Blue Origin’s 16th launch of the New Shepard rocket.
Some supporters praised the project for increasing access to space, while others mocked it as a glitzy thrill ride for the wealthy (early tickets sold for $250,000 each to celebrities like Justin Bieber and Katy Perry). However, while the two billionaires compete to make suborbital space tourism a reality, space researchers may gain the true prize: the opportunity to do new sorts of studies.
Ferl and Anna-Lisa Paul, who operate the University of Florida’s Space Plants Lab together, traveled to a makeshift laboratory in the hangar of New Mexico’s Spaceport America to prepare seedings for the NASA-funded experiment in the days leading up to the trip.
Their immediate objective is to figure out how plants that have evolved to exist under the gravitational pull of Earth respond to the alien environment of near weightlessness, or “microgravity.”
Before the start of weightlessness, in the midst of weightlessness, and near the end of weightlessness, this experiment captured pictures of the Arabidopsis plant’s genetic activity. Future research might look into how plants adjust their metabolism or protein usage in response to the lack of gravity.
Standard microgravity laboratories are incapable of answering these questions. Ferl and Paul have transported seeds to the International Space Station, but the plants there live their whole lives without being influenced by Earth’s gravity.
They’ve also flown with plants on parabolic “vomit comet” trips, but only for a few seconds at a time. Only suborbital flights, such as those offered by Virgin Galactic, can test the transition from Earth gravity to microgravity, as well as a microgravity condition lasting minutes.
The objective of Ferl and Paul’s experiment was to evaluate suborbital experimental techniques in general, not only plant genetics.
They wanted to know how long Bandla would take to trigger the tubes during her two to four minutes of weightlessness, as well as how many samples she could carry and how she would handle them.
This section of the study looked into the game-changing potential of suborbital research, which allows scientists to have more direct access to their studies.
Research is a hands-on activity in nearly every discipline of science. Climate experts travel to the Arctic and Antarctic to study the environment. Volcanologists climb volcanoes to see lava flows up close.
Deep-sea submarines are used by marine scientists to study the behavior of unusual undersea animals. We’re quite comfortable with the concept of scientists working in “very risky or new areas,” Paul adds.
The study of microgravity is unique. At any one time, just a few astronauts are housed aboard the International Space Station. They control and monitor a wide range of studies that Earth-bound researchers set up to be as automated as feasible.
It’s better than nothing, and ISS-based research has resulted in a large amount of scientific literature. A person’s intellect and hands, on the other hand, are unbeatable by any computer program or robot.
“Only a person can truly decide when the proper moment is to do the experiment and how to conduct it,” Paul explains.
Then there’s the matter of the cost.
The development of a completely automated system that stops an organism’s functioning at precisely the correct time may cost millions of dollars. Virgin Galactic starts to appear like a good deal at a few hundred thousand dollars per ticket.
Virgin Galactic will soon be flying experiments that are not only managed by humans, but also by the individuals who created them.
Last year, NASA selected Alan Stern, the chief scientist on a high-profile Pluto flyby project, to examine how stars and other celestial bodies look to astronomical equipment via Virgin Galactic’s windows.
Blue Origin, Bezos’s rival suborbital firm, is also planning to conduct suborbital space missions shortly. Automated experiments from the Space Plants Lab will be used to begin the research, and Ferl anticipates human-operated investigations to follow.
“Our true aim for 2021 is to assist both of these suppliers in unlocking the potential to fly scientists,” Ferl adds. “That is why [Sunday’s flight] was so significant.”
Although Bandla, Branson, and the rest of the crew only experienced a few minutes of weightlessness, the mission might usher in a new age for space researchers.
“We are on the verge of achieving the new normal, and this will ultimately become normal,” Paul adds. “But for the time being, it’s still a new and exciting thing.”