Des Moines Area Community College and Lone Star Community College have partnered with the UTEX Culture Collection of Algae at the University of Texas at Austin and NASA to send Haematococcus pluvialis samples into space to facilitate studying the effects of microgravity on algal growth. Microalgae are microscopic algae, much smaller than the macroalgae you see floating around in the ocean or washed up on the shore. They are found in freshwater and marine systems, living in both water and sediment. Microalgae can be cultivated to have characteristics that are useful to humans such as high protein and oil content which can then be used for biofuels or food products. They are also rich in micronutrients and are already used as dietary supplements for humans.
But it needs to be determined if the terrestrial organism will thrive up there far away from the usual habitat. That is where two community colleges, and YOU! play a part. NASA and their partners have sent a freshwater green algae called Haematococcus pluvialis to space to test how it would react in a microgravity environment. For this experiment, the algae will stay in space for 25 days and will be checked periodically for a color change. A change from green to red indicates production of astaxanthin, a super oxidant that could serve as a dietary supplement for long-duration space voyages in the future (Mars, anyone?)
The samples are being cultivated and studied while in space, and then they will be brought back to Earth. Some of each sample will be frozen down for later study, and some will be made available for students to cultivate at their own colleges, and then send their observations to NASA. The NASA Project One website has information and protocols to build your own "Classroom Veggie Frame", to duplicate on Earth the cultivation environment the Space Station astronauts are using. You can use samples of the microalgae before it goes into space, and apply to get samples of the microalgae when it comes back down as well!
Read what Lyndsay Baker, now a graduate of Des Moines Community College, has to say about about her original proposal and subsequent work on this extraordinary project.