With New Shepard launch, space researchers become space customers

The University of Florida is helping to launch a new era in space research with a plant experiment aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket that blasted off from the company’s West Texas site Tuesday morning. 

Rob Ferl and Anna-Lisa Paul have been studying how plants respond to stressful environments for decades, placing their genetically engineered mustard plants on high-flying planes, on the space shuttle and on the International Space Station. 

But the Blue Origin project is the first time UF has worked directly with a commercial launch provider, marking an important shift in how universities conduct space-related research, Ferl said. 

“This is one of the first wave of projects where a university is contracting directly with a commercial space flight provider to launch science experiments,” he said. “Previously, NASA handled all of the arrangements.”

NASA still funds much of the research, but the new process enables universities to negotiate with multiple companies to get just the right fit, both in terms of the science and the cost.

“For some experiments, suborbital might be the best platform, for others it might be orbital or lunar,” Paul says. “Instead of providing all the rides, NASA is now facilitating the relationship with the commercial providers. This frees up NASA to focus on getting us back to the moon and to Mars.” 

For this particular experiment, Ferl said Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket was the perfect platform for studying how living things adjust their metabolism from Earth’s gravity to no gravity and back again.

In the early 1990s, Ferl and Paul, both plant molecular biologists with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, began experimenting with “reporter genes” that allowed them to see when plants were experiencing certain environmental stresses. By splicing a gene from a fluorescent jellyfish into Arabidopsis mustard plants — a model species often used in plant genetics experiments — they have been able to make the plants glow in response to various stresses and to track those responses using specialized cameras.

What they found when they sent their plants to space was that they respond dramatically, turning certain genes on and off and modifying how their roots grow. That could have important implications for human space flight.

“About half of the genes in our bodies encode the exact same proteins in plants,” explained Paul. “That’s very exciting, because it means that as we look at how plants behave in the absence of gravity, we can translate many of those basic biological processes to humans.”

Through their work with NASA and commercial space companies, Ferl and Paul have become as much engineers as plant scientists, learning to design and build the sophisticated “capsules” in which their tiny botanical astronauts travel.

“Using reporter genes is everyday stuff in the lab,” says Ferl. “The real challenge of deploying this technology is to take all of this equipment and shrink it down into a unit that is capable of being lofted into space, where we might not be there to look after it.” 

The researchers have reduced their laboratory to a box about six inches square by a foot long. Inside, light emitting diodes bathe the plants in only the wavelengths they need to thrive.

For the Blue Origin mission, the researchers didn’t have to wait long to check on the experiment. The entire flight took roughly 11 minutes from liftoff to the capsule’s parachute landing a few miles away. Ferl and Paul were among the first to the capsule, hustling their plants back to the on-site laboratory to see how they responded to the sudden changes in gravity.

“The flight is just part of the experiment,” Paul says. “We’ve got lots of new data to analyze about how our plants responded to their mission.”

Ferl said the growth of commercial space companies opens new vistas for university research.

“In the past, the opportunities to get an experiment on the space shuttle or up to the International Space Station were very limited because there were so few launches and so many worthy experiments,” Ferl said. “Now, with multiple carriers launching dozens of rockets per year, a lot more experiments can hitch a ride.”

Joe Kays October 13, 2020