A group of students are developing a “biology cannon” that will take aim at the question of whether x-rays are more harmful to human DNA in the zero gravity of outer space than they are when exposure takes place on earth.

The Rad-Panther team picked for the NASA Minority Innovation Challenges Institute (MICI) Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program will travel to Johnson Space Center at Clear Lake in June for pre-flight examinations and evaluations. From there, they will move to nearby Ellington Air Force Base to assemble their experiment aboard NASA’s Weightless Wonder, a highly modified Boeing 727, and prepare for a series of roller coaster-like flights over the Gulf of Mexico that simulate zero gravity.

Dr. Brad Gersey, lead researcher with the NASA Center for Radiation Engineering and Science for Space Exploration (CRESSE) at PVAMU, said the focus of the experiment is to develop, build, test and fly a device capable of performing radiation biology exposures to human cell cultures during atmospheric or space flight missions.

The five-member flight team will load their prototype cannon with both biological samples and an ultraviolet-C radioactive source into a sealed metal tube affixed with a shutter system to allow precise-time irradiation of samples only during the period when the flight parabolas are in a microgravity-producing trajectory. Another device called a Tissue Equivalent Proportional Counter (TEPC) will be flown alongside the cannon in order to quantify the ambient radiation dose and ensure such radiation is not large enough to confound experimental results.

Undergraduate flight team members for the June 16-25 experiment are junior Jordan Fuchs, team lead, electrical engineering; senior Camille Smith, co-lead, chemical engineering; junior Melanie Price, electrical engineering; junior Demarcus Briers, biology; and junior Christopher St. Julian, electrical engineering.

PVAMU is one of just 14 minority serving institutions and community colleges nationwide participating in the MICI reduced gravity project. CRESSE, a NASA University Research Center, is home to some of the nation’s leading radiation scientists.


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