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Petaluma High School reaches for the stars

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It’s not every day that a Petaluma High School student gets the chance to play a part in a historic orbital space mission.

But on April 8, a close-knit group of Petaluma teens watched as the scientific experiment they’ve spent multiple semesters developing and maintaining was launched into the cosmos on a SpaceX rocket carrying cargo to deliver to the International Space Station.

Though the Falcon 9 rocket launched the Dragon spacecraft filled with supplies, experiments from about two-dozen other schools and technology to demonstrate expandable in-space habitable technology while completing the first sea landing of a reusable rocket without a hitch, it’s been a bumpy ride for the Petaluma students and teachers waiting for a successful mission.

Last June, students watched in horror as their experiment, which will test the feasibility of growing algae in micro-gravity as a potential source for biofuel, was destroyed when the SpaceX rocket carrying it exploded after its launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The experiment proposal, created by then-seniors Tara Thomas and Morgan Giraud, landed a spot on Mission 7 to the International Space Station in the 2014-15 academic year after being chosen from 100 proposals submitted from schools across Petaluma to participate in the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education’s Student Spaceflight Experiments Program.

Students worked to develop and maintain the experiment and raise the $23,000 necessary to participate, according to science teacher Linda Judah.

“I’m really happy that it finally worked out,” said Thomas, now in her first year of studying industrial design at California State University, Long Beach. “We had a lot of setbacks and the launch date kept getting pushed back further and further – I’m happy that the experiment finally got its chance.”

Though Thomas and Giraud graduated before the rocket could make it to space and return with data to analyze, students Alana Roberts, Liza Strong and Lulabel Seitz have carried on the torch, according to Judah, who’s working with the team on the experiment.

The spacecraft was successfully captured by the International Space Station April 10, according to NASA, and once the craft returns next month, students will get the samples back to gauge the success of the experiment and see how the algae behaved in micro-gravity, Judah said.

They’ll compare the results with samples kept on the ground, eventually looking to see if it’s possible to grow the algae in large quantities, and if they’ll be able to extract oil from the substances to use for biofuel, she said.

“This is really interesting because it has clear application,” Judah said of the experiment. “The girls who thought of this were really looking for how can we improve what we do as far as space transportation and manned space flight programs. Fuel is a very expensive thing to carry along. … Any kind of weight is hard to move, but if you can bring a small amount of algae with you and grow more when you get there, you can use it as a fuel source.”

Roberts, a senior, who’s been involved in the project for about a year, said she’s excited to know the experiment can finally progress. She said the group faced another false start after they sent samples in January for a projected earlier launch date that never made it to space.

“It’s been kind of a little frustrating,” Roberts said. “It’s nice (it launched), I think it’s going to be fun that we get to learn about what’s happened.”

Judah said the teamwork, the mounting anticipation and the delays paint a clear picture for students of what real-world science is like outside of the instant gratification of classroom exercises.

“This is a real science experiment,” she said, adding that the “bright and dedicated bunch” of students have juggled deadlines, homework and other commitments while remaining enthusiastic about the cause. “They’re working as a team with other remote teams and lot of other groups to make this happen. … This is super applicable to anything they’ll do hands-on in a lab.”

Petaluma High School Principal David Stirrat echoed the sentiment, adding that the experiment served as a life lesson to students, enforcing the importance of persistence.

“This is a real validation for all students and staff who championed this,” he said.

Judah said fundraising efforts to cover costs are still ongoing. To donate, visit http://bit.ly/1S8fr3Z.

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com. On Twitter @hannahbeausang.)

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