June 15, 2012 at 10:51 PM ET
Wanna do some space science? You no longer have to be a professional researcher, or even a grown-up, to get your experiment into orbit. A new program called DreamUp is offering slots on the International Space Station's experimental racks to school groups for as little as $15,500 a pop, and you can use credit-card reward points to help cover the cost.
"We are committed to lowering the barriers for entry to space research," Jeffrey Manber, managing director of NanoRacks, said in a news release announcing the program. "This is a double win. This first-of-its-kind student experiment donation platform will help create a world-class experience for students."
"Some experiments can't be done on Earth because we can't 'turn off' gravity," said Nancy Conrad, the foundation's chairman and the widow of Apollo astronaut Pete Conrad. "DreamUp, powered by our partner NanoRacks, is the ultimate 'plug and play,' helping our next great innovators participate in a scientific research opportunity like no other."
Organizers say American Express Membership Rewards points can be put toward the cost of an experiment, at the rate of $10 for every 1,000 points redeemed. The DreamUp program is open to junior-high students, high-schoolers and college undergraduates from accredited U.S. schools.
Teacher, I shrunk the experiment
The concept follows up on a series of student experiments that have already flown up to the station on NanoRacks' platforms. One of the key players in the project will be Werner Vavken, director of Valley Christian Schools' Applied Math, Science and Engineering Institute in San Jose, Calif. Vavken and his students have built experiments for the space station and taught several other schools to do likewise.
The first lesson that Vavken shares with other schools is that doing space science isn't as hard as it sounds. "I explain this to them, and they think I'm from outer space," he told me. "But they really can do it. The sky is no longer the limit."
The key trick is to shrink the experiment: Vavken said the experiments that he and his students build have to fit within a 2-by-2-by-4-inch space (5 by 5 by 10 centimeters). That sounds incredibly challenging, but it can be done. One of the schools he worked with wanted to design an experiment to mix concrete in microgravity — a task that some thought would cost millions of dollars. Suffice it to say that the eight-student team from Faith Christian Academy in Coalinga, Calif., found a cheaper way.
"They conjured up a way to mix concrete in space, in 16 cubic inches, and they didn't have a $4 million budget," Vavken said. The experiment is due to return to Earth next month aboard a Russian Soyuz craft, and the students will then analyze how zero-gravity concrete differs from the Earth-made equivalent on the molecular level.
"The opportunity for students to do small experiments on the ISS is a powerful motivator in science, technology, engineering and math," Julie Robinson, NASA's chief scientist for the International Space Station, said in this week's news release. "DreamUp will provide the opportunity for top students of all socio-economic levels to fly their experiments to the space station, and the NanoRacks system allows them to be completed without any impact to other research activities."
The revolution continues
NanoRacks' standardized research platforms, known as NanoLabs, are shipped up to the space station on cargo flights. NASA astronauts plug them into the station's power and communication system, and then just let them run for 30 days. The students get the opportunity to interact with the astronauts and check in with their experiment.
"It's really pretty revolutionary for teenagers to conjure this up, get it built and tested, and approved by NanoRacks," Vavken said.
Next year could be even more revolutionary. "We are teaching the kids how to design and launch a satellite from the International Space Station," Vavken said. The CubeSat device, measuring 4 inches (10 centimeters) on each side, could be sent into orbit as early as next February from Japan's Kibo laboratory, he said.
Vavken acknowledged that the $15,500 cost was "a little pricey," but he said the project could be a game-changer for teens who are interested in math, science and engineering. He recalled the case of one high-schooler who was on the team for a space experiment he helped organize. "She graduated this past year ... and got a four-year, full-ride scholarship to MIT," he said. "Now, I think that's a good payback for a kid in an after-school program."
But wait ... there's more
Meanwhile, aerospace experts and their corporate partners have just set up a Kickstarter campaign for a citizen-space-science project called ArduSat. They're soliciting donations to cover the anticipated $35,000 cost of building a CubeSat that will contain more than two dozen sensors for orbital observations. "As soon as the funding goal is met, we can move ahead with applications for free launches through various NASA or ESA ride-along programs," the project leaders say.
Organizers of the campaign say that ArduSat will be the "first open platform allowing the general public to design and run their own space-based applications, games and experiments, steer the onboard cameras to take pictures on demand, and even broadcast personalized messages back to Earth." If the project gets off the ground, Kickstarter supporters will get the first turns at taking the controls, at a discounted price.
Discover Magazine has partnered with ArduSat to run the Discover Space Challenge, which is soliciting ideas for innovative experiments, games or applications to run on the nanosatellite. The winning team members will be awarded a Team Development Kit that could turn their idea into a reality.
More about nanosatellites:
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.