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Marfa Martians Prepare To Send Experiment To Space

The Marfa Martians are the youngest group to submit a project deemed suitable for testing on the ISS by the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program this school year. (Sally Beauvais / Marfa Public Radio)

By Sally Beauvais

A team of fourth, fifth, and sixth grade girls at Marfa Elementary School is gearing up to send a microgravity experiment to outer space.

First, the group won their school-wide competition. Then, in late 2018, their proposal was chosen by scientists in DC to be tested aboard the International Space Station, or ISS. It's 1 of 41 projects from across the US accepted by the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program this school year.

Meet the Marfa Martians: 4th graders Madison Cash, Daniela Fernandez, Colette Fowlkes, and Mabel Melgaard, 5th grader Charlotte Browning, and 6th grader Ashley Marquez. 

The Martians are calling their project Eradicating Bacteria in Microgravity.

According to team leader Ashley Marquez, microgravity is just very weak gravity. "People say that, well, in space there’s no gravity. But there is!" she explained. "Because how [else] would we be orbiting the sun?"

The experiment is designed to be done in microgravity conditions, like in space. Specifically, the team wants to look at how scientists on the ISS could more effectively control bacteria in their living quarters.

"We think that in the ISS, the bacteria is sort of mutating and it’s growing stronger and tougher cells," Marquez hypothesized.

The Martians are conducting their experiment in a small vessel. "It's kind of like a short smoothie straw," team member Charlotte Browning offered.

The tube has 3 chambers separated by clamps that can be opened and closed. Researcher Colette Fowlkes explained that one will hold disinfectant (in the form of hand sanitizer),  another will hold freeze-dried bacteria, and the third will hold "a thing called tryptic soy broth that’s going to help the bacteria kind of grow, and the isopropanol is supposed to try to kill it."

The team is experimenting with mixing the ingredients for different lengths of time.

Led by their teacher, Cheri Aguero, they've been working alongside Texas Tech Professor of Biological Sciences Dr. Michael San Francisco, as well as Marilyn Sanders of Marfa, a retired Professor of Pharmacology.

The only thing standing in the way of the Martians’ project officially going to space is a safety review, to be conducted by a board of 61 science and engineering professionals working with the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. The team has until January 25th to perfect their plans.

"The girls are coming in before school, and after school, and outside of school to really, really work hard on making sure that their experiment is going to be ready," said Marfa ISD Community Liason Ann Marie Nafziger. "They’re so excited."

The school is also raising money to send the Martians to Washington D.C., where they will  present their research at a 2-day conference.

Most of the team members reported that they have always had a knack for science, but not necessarily microbiology. This experience is taking their interests to a new level. "I’ve always been into science, 'til now we got chosen for NASA!" Daniela Fernandez said.

Since the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program began in 2010, only 1% of projects have been selected for flight. This year, the Marfa Martians are the youngest team of microgravity researchers to make the cut.

Sally Beauvais is a reporter at Marfa Public Radio.