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Petaluma science project lost in rocket explosion

Jubilation quickly turned to disappointment Sunday morning as a SpaceX rocket carrying an expensive science project into orbit for a group of Petaluma High School students burst into a fiery ball shortly after takeoff from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The launch of the Petaluma High School experiment began as a calm day on Florida’s east coast. A live stream from the launch site showing a clear view of the rocket resting on the tarmac against a clear blue sky, was projected on a white board in room F17 at Petaluma High School.

“Everything looked good. We were very optimistic,” said Linda Judah, the science teacher who spearheaded the project.

At approximately 7:20 a.m., the handful of students and teachers gathered for the launch party, including Judah, teacher Victor Brazil, and Lulabel Seitz and Liza Strong of the student team, watched the rocket lift into space with a payload of supplies for the astronauts at the International Space Station as well as experiments from schools nationwide.

Petaluma’s experiment was to investigate the reproduction of algae in a microgravity setting. Designed by a team of six students — Seitz, Strong, Morgan Giraud, Tara Thomas, Shelby Metten and Alana Roberts — the experiment was intended to generate research into the realistic applications for extractable oil from the algae to be used as biofuel for future deep space explorers.

The launch represented the culmination of nine months spent designing, constructing and perfecting the experiment, and cost $23,000, which the group is raising through the community and a GoFundMe campaign.

For several minutes, the students and teachers watched and cheered as the rocket soared up and curved away into the atmosphere.

As the rocket approached its second stage of the launch, the point where the main capsule would normally separate from the rocket and ignite its boosters, a cloud of white smoke and debris burst forth from the head. Within seconds, the rocket was engulfed in flames. Then, it disintegrated into tiny fragments and was gone.

No one was injured in the unmanned launch, and the cause of the rocket failure is under investigation. However, all of the experiments on board were destroyed as well as the supplies intended to support the astronauts in the Space Station. At 9:30 a.m., NASA held a press conference to discuss the failed launch.

“As to what led to the explosion, from the media release, there was a possible oxygen tank failure,” wrote Brazil. “But it was clearly stated that further investigation was needed.”

Judah said the team was disappointed by the failed launch, but was not giving up hope of getting their experiment into space. The team has backup versions of the experiment that were not on the failed rocket.

“The press conference tried to put a positive spin on it,” she said. “They reassured everyone that the astronauts at the space station were all fine, and that there is another launch happening at the end of the week.”

There is hope for the PHS experiment. The previous launch, the 6th mission in the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program, was a failure as well, and experiments from that launch were given another opportunity to be sent into space. Program director Jeff Goldstein said another round of experiments won’t be launched until 2016.

Meanwhile, the team will be attempting to maintain their algae specimens until such a time when they are able to reload their experimental chambers.

Overall the hopes of the PHS team remain undiminished, Brazil said.

“I believe with certainty that SSEP will reschedule a launch so that our Mission 7 team will have experimental results,” he said.

(Contact Ella Ban at argus@arguscourier.com.)