Mission 14 to Launch Legumes into Space
Galloway, N.J.- The closest Sophia Bradach had been to space was following NASA astronauts on Instagram, until this year, when the freshman Environmental Science major started designing an experiment that was selected to launch to the International Space Station in the fall.
Bradach, of Point Pleasant Borough, wants to know if snow peas can self-fertilize through nitrogen fixation in a microgravity environment. She is working with her mentor, Peter Straub, dean of the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, to find the answer.
A space garden can help astronauts grow their own food, but on the International Space Station, space is limited. Storing bags of fertilizer for extended space travel isn’t realistic.
Bradach, who enjoys gardening and astrophysics, is joining her interests into an experiment that will test nitrogen fixation, a natural fertilizing process, in microgravity using snow peas.
Peas, which have already been proven to grow in microgravity, have a symbiotic relationship with a soil bacteria. The bacteria, formally known as rhizobium leguminosarum, infects the root hairs of peas, grows in hair-like extensions from the roots, and then forms nodules. “The nodules communicate with the peas and when there isn’t enough nitrogen in the soil, it causes the bacteria to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere to help,” said Bradach.
The entire experiment fits into test tubes—one that will go to space and another that will stay on Earth. After the mission, nitrogen fixation will be measured in both scenarios and the rates will be compared.
“The plant is hosting the bacteria, and the plant provides sugar to the bacteria and the bacteria takes atmospheric nitrogen (N2) and reduces it to ammonia and nitrate so that the plant can be fertilized,” explained Peter Straub.
Bradach and Straub are hoping to see that the rate and effectiveness of nitrogen fixation on earth also works in space.
If all goes well and the bacteria infects the roots, they believe that the rate of nitrogen fixation will be similar to the experiment that grows on earth.
Bradach says that this opportunity is “the perfect combo of my interests and has helped me to combine my passions and studies.”
The greenhouse in the Unified Science Center II served as Bradach’s lab space as she prepared the test tube with carefully measured quantities of bacteria, snow pea seeds, vermiculite (a lightweight soil), water, and lastly, a fixative that can be released into the test tube to halt the pea growth and nitrogen fixation.
Working among the plants, Bradach felt at home. “My room is half plants. It makes me happy when I come home,” she said. She’s incorporated fish tanks with frogs and beta fish too.
Nitrogen fixation is beneficial on Earth too. Farmers can grow peas and certain legumes as cover crops to pack the soil with nutrients before starting their main crops. Using less artificial fertilizer results in less runoff into waterways, which reduces nutrient pollution.
Bradach hopes to pursue a career in environmental remediation to clean up superfund sites, but in the meantime, she’s looking forward to a fall 2020 launch of her experiment that will be conducted by astronauts aboard the ISS.
Bradach’s experiment was made possible by the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP), a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in the U.S. and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education internationally. It is enabled through a strategic partnership with DreamUp PBC and NanoRacks LLC, which are working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory.
For experiment updates, visit www.stocktonspaceflight.org.