Southwest Florida students send experiment to International Space Station

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Reaching for the stars in education, two Southwest Florida students won a competition to send a project to the International Space Station.

The winning experiment was designed to create faster production of RSV vaccines

It’s one thing to watch the launch of a spacecraft. It’s another to know the experiment you created is on it. Cypress Lake High School student Rhodes and Dunbar High School graduate Anáis Sarnelli can.

“There’s so many cool experiments that go into space, and one of ours is one of them, which is just super cool. And not a lot of you know, 16, 17, 18-year-olds can say that,” said Autumn Rhodes, a Cypress Lake High School student.

Their experiment flew into space on the SpaceX CRS-27 mission.

SpaceX CRS-27. (Credit: SpaceX via NASA)

“I like almost cried like, it was it was really cool,” Sarnelli said.

Michelle Lucas, the founder and CEO of Higher Orbits, said she created the program for reactions just like that. “We’ve had 17 teams now. 17 experiments fly to space.”

In this program, students compete for two days and define and design a space experiment. They have certain parameters to follow, like making sure it can fit in a cube, doesn’t involve animals with a backbone, and nothing that can hurt the astronauts onboard the ISS.

“Then we turn them loose. Like, I want their ideas,” said Lucas. “We work with Space Tango to build the experiments. So they work hand in hand with the students to actually physically build the experiment.”

The experiments launched into space can have technical applications that can reach us right here on Earth.

“What happens when you put bacteria in space?” Sarnelli asked.

Sarnelli and Rhodes joined forces to get an answer. The pair sent deinococcus radiodurans, a radioactive-resistant bacteria that thrive in intense environments, to one of the most intense environments known to man. They will monitor what happens for 30 days.

“Is the structure intact so that the lipids can be extracted from the bacteria to be used for vaccines?” asked Sarnelli.

“Right now, we’re just looking at the growth rate to see if it produces more of the bacteria over time, and right now, we’re seeing a pretty steady increase in bacteria. We haven’t gotten a lot of data yet,” Rhodes said.

That little data is promising, and they believe it could change the medical field as we know it when it comes to cancer research.

“Understanding how bacteria can regenerate itself can help us understand how human body cells can regenerate themselves,” said Rhodes. “It’s that repairing of its own DNA and the isolating of its cells to where it’s able to regenerate itself. That application turned to humans could be revolutionary for cancer research, but yeah, the one that we’re mostly targeting is the RSV vaccine.”

Depending on the answers the duo gets, it may lead to multiple advancements in medicine.

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