Iowa State University
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News Service

News Service:

Annette Hacker, director,
(515) 294-3720

Office: (515) 294-4777

9-7-05

Contacts:

Jessica R. Wallace, High Altitude Balloon Experiments in Technology team, (515) 294-2672

Mike Krapfl, News Service, (515) 294-4917

Iowa State students to fly tiny worms into stratosphere for NASA

AMES, Iowa -- Iowa State University students will launch four experimental balloons that will carry payloads of tiny roundworms some 20 miles above central Iowa this week.

The worms -- specifically, Caenorhabditis elegans, nematodes that grow to about 1 millimeter in length and live in soil where they can find rotting vegetation -- are part of a NASA experiment to see what exposure to space does to living organisms.

The experimental flights are a collaboration of Iowa State's High Altitude Balloon Experiments in Technology team and the National Center for Space Biological Technologies, a collaboration of Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The experiments also involve middle- and high-school students who have been monitoring the behavior of the worms.

Here's how a balloon flight works: A Styrofoam container carrying worms and monitoring instruments is attached to a 15-foot balloon filled with helium. The balloon rises to 100,000 feet or higher. The balloon expands in the light atmosphere and eventually bursts. A parachute lowers the worms to the ground. A crew of students tracks the worms with global positioning technology and retrieves them.

The flights typically last about three hours. And the payloads typically land within about 60 miles of Ames.

Weather allowing, the first launch is expected at dawn Friday, Sept. 9, on the field just north of Iowa State's Howe Hall. The second launch could happen after the first payload is recovered. The remaining flights are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, depending on the weather and any traffic problems related to Saturday's Iowa State-Iowa football game.

The experiments are designed to help determine how weightlessness and space radiation affect the genes of living organisms. The tiny worms are good candidates for the experiments because their genome has been assembled. The experiments may help researchers understand how space flights as far as Mars could affect human genes.

For updates on the flight schedule, contact Iowa State's Spacecraft Systems and Operations Laboratory at (515) 294-2672.

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Quick look

The flights are part of a NASA project to determine how space travel as far as Mars could affect human genes.