BRITISH COLUMBIA

NASA Rocket Explosion Destroys B.C. Students' Science Experiment

10/29/2014 04:05 EDT | Updated 12/29/2014 05:59 EST
KAMLOOPS, B.C. - Talk about a second chance: A group of students in Kamloops, B.C., will get another opportunity to get their experiment aboard a rocket bound for the International Space Station.

Just six seconds after liftoff Tuesday evening, a rocket launched from the Orbital Sciences Corp.'s complex in eastern Virginia exploded, destroying a payload of equipment that included the experiments of students from across North America.

On board was a microgravity experiment developed by four boys who attended McGowan Park elementary school in Kamloops last year and are now in Grade 8.

Paul Hembling, the project co-ordinator for the Kamloops-Thompson School District, said he and the students were thrilled to learn Wednesday from the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education that their experiment can be repeated for a future launch.

The $25,000 they'd fundraised will be covered by private company NanoRacks, the commercial launch agent that puts experiments into orbit, said Hembling, who is also principal of Bert Edwards Science and Technology School.

"The bottom line is our students will have the opportunity to get their experiment back into space at a later date. We don't know when that is yet. All we have to do is reprepare their experimental payload," he said.

"If putting an experiment on the International Space Station wasn't enough to make them feel somewhat famous, having it blow up on a launch pad first and then go to the International Space Station on a subsequent launch, that's just icing on the cake," he said. "I think if I was a Grade 8 boy I'd think that this whole thing was pretty cool. I gotta be honest, I'm a grown man and I think it's pretty cool."

The experiment was designed to examine how space impacts the growth of crystals, and Hembling said it involved silicon tubes, 17 centimetres long and 0.9 centimetres in diameter.

Two separate solutions were inside the tubes and were separated by clips, he said.

Once the experiment was aboard the space station, the astronauts were supposed to remove a clip, allowing the solutions to mix and the crystals to form, Hembling said, noting a similar experiment was to take place on Earth at about the same time.

The experiment was supposed to return to earth in about 12 weeks, at which time the students could compare the results.

The students hypothesized the structure of the crystals formed in space would be different, Hembling said.

A summary of the experiment also proposed that unique materials could be created on Earth if scientists could better understand the formation of solids from liquids in space. It also said scientists would get a better understanding of how fluid mixing and crystal formation works in microgravity.

Hembling said he hopes the explosion won't mean the end of the experiment and that there will be another opportunity for the project.

The cost was for the transportation of the materials by rocket to the space station, not the silicon tubes and clips, he said.

Raising the money proved to be a half-time job for Hembling, who also had to write a proposal and apply on behalf of the school district to get a spot on the flight.

Kieren O’Neil said in an email to The Canadian Press that he was one of the students who spent the last year designing the experiment and was watching the launch when the explosion occurred.

"We feel bad for everyone involved," he said Tuesday, before learning about their second chance on Wednesday.

Flames from the explosion could be seen shooting into the sky as the sun set.

Orbital Science reported that everyone at the site had been accounted for, and the damage appeared to be limited to the facilities.

"We will understand what happened — hopefully soon — and we'll get things back on track," Orbital Sciences' executive vice-president Frank Culbertson told his team an hour after the failure. "We've all seen this happen in our business before, and we've all seen the teams recover from this, and we will do the same."

Tuesday was the second launch attempt for the mission.

Monday evening's try was thwarted by a stray sailboat in the rocket's danger zone. The restrictions are in case of just such an accident that occurred Tuesday.

Hembling said the project was important because it engaged students.

"We need to engage kids in science to make the learning real for them and to make the learning relevant," he said.

"I can't think of anything that is with more purpose or more real than having a NASA astronaut carry out your designed space experiment on the International Space Station."

--by Keven Drews and James Keller in Vancouver, with files from Kamloops This Week and CHNL.

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