Two NASA-funded laboratories, Final Frontier Plant Habitat and Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL), took off earlier this month for the International Space Station (ISS) where they will be used by Washington State University (WSU) researchers. The projects left onboard U.S.-based Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft and made the 240-mile voyage to the ISS from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
WSU physicists and their University of Colorado collaborators will use CAL to study the behavior of atoms cooled down to a few billionths of a degree above absolute zero. In the ISS’s microgravity environment, researchers will be able to use CAL to create and study ultra-cold atomic clouds, allowing them to observe new phenomena not seen on Earth. Their research will reveal new insights in the study of quantum physics that could eventually help develop ultrapowerful computers and advanced sensors for taking measurements of quantities such as gravity, rotations and magnetic fields.
The Final Frontier Plant Habitat will be used to investigate how the growth and development of plants is affected by microgravity. Researchers will determine whether plants develop the same characteristics, such as nutritional value and rates of oxygenic photosynthesis, in weightless environments as they do on earth. The purpose of the lab is to develop a better understanding of how plants will adapt to the harsh and weightless environment of outer space. In the future, astronauts will need to be able to grow plants for food and oxygen in order to sustain long-term space missions to other planets. Whether it’s establishing a new space station or long-range space travel, the findings of this project will be significant for the future of space exploration.
Snapshot: Washington State’s Commercial Space Industry
According to Choose Washington, the state has played a central role in space exploration for nearly 60 years. From harvesting asteroids to transporting tourists to outer space, the industry is anchored in the Greater Seattle region by pioneers such as Boeing and Planetary Resources.
- The state’s unique mix of established and newer companies led Forbes magazine to dub Washington “The Silicon Valley for Space” in 2016.
- Nearly three dozen space-related companies are part of Washington’s space cluster, including internationally recognized companies such as Aerojet Rocketdyne, Blue Origin, Planetary Resources, SpaceX, Spaceflight Industries and Vulcan Aerospace.
- Nearly a dozen educational, non-profit and science-related institutions are dedicated entirely to space exploration.
For more information on the commercial space industry in Washington state, visit Choose Washington.