SAN JOSE -- South Bay high school students are going to extremes to study science: Outer space.
Three local schools will join five other high schools and organizations throughout the country to shoot student-crafted science experiments into the final frontier.
The far-reaching program, spearheaded by San Jose's Valley Christian High School, will rocket 11 tiny experiments into the Earth's orbit on Friday. Their destination is the International Space Station, and the goal is to gain insight into how things work in space.
Student experiments from Fremont Christian School in San Jose and Los Gatos High School in Los Gatos will also be part of the stellar delivery.
Each school shipped its experiments to NASA earlier this month. Soon, they'll be tucked away on SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, which is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Friday. The young scientists will be watching.
Students, parents and mentors will gather in front of a large screen at Valley Christian High School to watch the rockets boom and the craft that cradles the experiments push off from Earth.
Kian Lane, 14, is a freshman at Valley Christian who worked with a team to create a project that will study magnetic liquids in space.
"It's going to be orbiting the Earth thousands of times in a day," said Lane of the experiment. "Just to say that I worked on that and that I built that, it's just a great feeling."
The International Space Station zips around Earth at a clip of 17,500 mph. There gravity has no hold. So, when students began to design their experiments in August, they wondered how a weightless environment might affect all manner of things.
Some experiments will examine plant growth in space while others will track how well antibiotics destroy bacterial cells in the zero gravity environment.
Each experiment needs to fit inside a box roughly the size of a chalkboard eraser, called a MicroLab.
For the past six months, teams of students have been tinkering with circuits, tweaking plans and building the mechanics that will make their experiments space-ready.
"We did so many test runs," said Kelsey Jiang, 17, a senior at Christian Valley who worked on a team experimenting with growing freeze-dried bacteria in space. They needed to squeeze cameras, sensors, bags of bacteria and sophisticated circuits into a tiny space. "Every time we added a new component to the board, we'd test it," added Jiang. It took months to get the design just right.
In sets of four, the completed MicroLabs were stuffed into another container, the size of a box of tissues, called a NanoLab. Once the NanoLabs dock at the International Space Station, astronauts working at NASA's U.S. National Laboratory simply need to plug the cube into a USB port. The MicroLabs inside will jolt to life.
Each acts like a self-contained computer. As bacteria multiply or plants grow, the MicroLabs will snap photos and trigger sensors. Within a week data will start to appear on the astronaut's laptop. Every two days, the information will beam down to Earth.
Students will spend the next month collecting data and monitoring their experiments. They're running identical tests here on Earth to figure out what's different in space. Once the projects are over, the NanoLabs will be picked up by another spacecraft and returned to Earth. Back in the hands of the students, the teams will continue to probe their gadgets for information.
NanoLabs from three Southern California high schools, a Minnesota school and the Girl Scouts of Hawaii are included in Friday's launch. Christian Valley hopes to include more schools next year. "Every year they're pumped up," said Werner Vavken, the director of Valley Christian's Applied Math, Science, and Engineering Institute, who has been running the project for three years.
The program is supported by the Quest Institute for Quality Education and NanoRacks LLC through the Space Act Agreement with NASA's U.S. National Laboratory.
The students are excited for the chance Friday to celebrate. "It will be heartwarming to show our parents what we've done," said Jiang. "It's honestly out of this world."
Contact Ryder Diaz at 408-920-5064. Follow him at Twitter.com/RyderKDiaz.