By Will Ferguson, WSU News

Washington State University scientists are getting two new laboratories in outer space.

On May 20, the NASA-funded Final Frontier Plant Habitat and Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) will blast off for the International Space Station where they will be used by WSU researchers to investigate how the growth and development of plants is affected by microgravity, and to probe quantum phenomena that would be impossible to observe on Earth.

The two remotely operated projects will make the roughly 240-mile voyage to the ISS from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia onboard U.S.-based Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft. Live launch coverage will begin at 1:30 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

Space farming

Astronauts will need to be able to grow plants for food and oxygen in order to conduct long-term space missions to other planets. To make this possible, scientists first need to develop a greater understanding of how plants will adapt to the harsh and weightless environment of outer space.

Norman G. Lewis, a Regents professor at WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry, is leading the $2.3 million NASA-funded initiative.

Plant habitat in profile
A prototype of the plant habitat headed to the International Space Station as part of a WSU-led research project.

Lewis and a team of researchers from Pullman, the University of New Mexico, and the Los Alamos and Pacific Northwest National Laboratories will use the Final Frontier Plant Habitat to determine whether plants develop the same characteristics, such as nutritional value and rates of oxygenic photosynthesis, in weightless environments as they do on Earth. A control group of identical plants will be grown at the same time at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The goal is to develop a greater understanding of how plants respond to the extreme environment of space which will in turn help astronauts on future missions successfully grow plants for food and to generate oxygen. Their work could also provide further insights into how plants might better adapt to stress on Earth. The study will serve as a baseline or reference point for future NASA research, with the collection and analysis of big data sets showing changes in genes, proteins, and metabolites.

“The overall significance is what it could mean for space exploration,” Lewis said. “Whether it’s colonizing planets, establishing a station, or for long-range space travel, it’s going to require maintaining air and food for artificially supported environments.”

Coldest place in the universe

The Cold Atom Laboratory was designed by researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to produce temperatures colder than anywhere else in the known universe. WSU physicists Peter Engels and Maren Mossman and their University of Colorado collaborators Eric Cornell and Jose D’Incao will use CAL to study the behavior of atoms chilled down to just a few billionths of a degree above absolute zero, the point where they behave like one wave instead of discrete particles.

The cold atom laboratory in profile
The Cold Atom Laboratory is designed to study ultracold quantum fluids in the microgravity environment of the International Space Station.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On Earth, the unavoidable presence of gravity makes it difficult to conduct unperturbed observations of this super cooled substance and the laws of quantum physics that govern its wave-like behavior.

However, in the ISS’s microgravity environment, Engels, a professor of physics, and Mossman, a graduate student researcher, will be able to use CAL to create and study ultra-cold atomic clouds for up to 10 seconds at a time, unlocking the potential to observe new phenomena never before seen on Earth.

Their research will be the start of a new chapter in the study of quantum physics that could eventually help in the development of ultrapowerful computers and a wide variety of advanced sensors for taking measurements of quantities such as gravity, rotations and magnetic fields.

“Cold atom research on the ISS will give us a fundamental understanding for a part of physics that is so complicated that, even with the most powerful computers on Earth, we cannot find answers,” Engels said. “Our work will, in turn, provide new insights into systems that may be important in the design of future materials and electronics like ultraprecise gravitational sensors to detect caves underground or hidden oil fields. The options are really quite limitless and exciting.”

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