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New Purdue Program Provides Supplies For Zero Gravity Experimentation

Cumberland Elementary students worked with members of Purdue's Aeronautics & Astronautics department to design the experiment. (Courtesy: Maggie Samudio)

Purdue University has launched a program that aims to help young scientists everywhere run their own experiments – in zero-gravity. The new Launchbox program began with a simple question.

The Cumberland Elementary Firefly Class

Maggie Samudio’s classroom at Cumberland Elementary is used to making headlines.

For four years, second graders in her class have been trying to convince Indiana legislators to select a state insect for Indiana. And this year, after a visit from Gov. Eric Holcomb and a trip to the Indiana Statehouse, they succeeded.

But that’s not the only project the class has been working on. During an ordinary lesson about the solar system and space travel, Samudio posed a question to her classroom: Could fireflies light up in space?

“So I asked the students that question and we just kind of looked at each other, like, ‘Well, we don’t know!’” Samudio says. “And I said, ‘I know someone I can ask.’”

Samudio got in touch with Dr. Steven Collicott, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue University. And to her surprise, he said, "Well, let’s build an experiment. Let’s not guess, let’s build an experiment and test it." 

Collicott proposed a class project. Samudio and her second graders would work with Purdue students in the Aeronautics and Astronautics program to find out if fireflies would still light up in zero-gravity.

After speaking with some experts, the classroom learned that fireflies won’t actually light up when they’re afraid. So coming up with a way to test their theory would be more difficult.

But that didn’t stop them. The students worked together to design a metal box that could fit in a commercial zero-gravity aircraft. Inside that box, there was an HD camera, two syringes full of the chemicals that make fireflies light up, and a switch that would combine the chemicals at just the right moment.

Purdue Launchbox design
Left: The materials put inside the ZGGE launchbox. (Courtesy: Maggie Samudio); Right: The exterior of the assembled box. (Zach Herndon, WFIU/WTIU News)

They called the project the Zero-Gravity Glow Experiment, or ZGGE.

The two classes fundraised for the money to send ZGGE up in a rocket owned by Amazon, called Blue Origin, which has a program for “payloads” like the metal capsules.

In December, that rocket took off. And the experiment worked; the mixture lit up.

Now, Professor Collicott is trying to make zero-gravity more accessible for everyone. He’s offering more of the metal boxes – called “Launchboxes” – to teachers, school groups and even families who have an experiment they’d like to test out. Applicants will get the metal canister, and the guidelines to 3D-print the plastic endcaps themselves.

“The purpose of the box is just to remove this really boring, mundane speedbump from the teacher’s duties of, how do you build a box just the right size?” Collicott says. “This lets the teachers focus on the science.”

Collicott says schools will be responsible for funding the ticket to send the boxes into zero-gravity and creating the experiments, unless they can team up with a local university.

Samudio says for her students, the effort and the money they put forth was worth it.

“If I hadn’t taken that leap – and I always take that leap – I mean, the kids would have missed out on so much.”

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