Toron­to­ni­ans vy­ing to soar into space

Cana­dian agency is look­ing for two new as­tro­nauts


Aaron Persad has been wait­ing a long time for an­other shot at go­ing to space.

As a mas­ter’s stu­dent in 2008, Persad ap­plied to be an as­tro­naut through the Cana­dian Space Agency’s open re­cruit­ment cam­paign. He was un­suc­cess­ful and didn’t know when an­other chance would come to ful­fil his life­long dream.

But now, the 32-year-old is one of more than 400 hope­fuls from Toronto who have ap­plied to be one of Canada’s two new­est as­tro­nauts, the most from any city. Un­til Aug. 15, the space agency is wel­com­ing ap­pli­ca­tions.

More than 3,300 Cana­di­ans have al­ready started or com­pleted their ap­pli­ca­tions since the agency kicked off its re­cruit­ment cam­paign June 17.

Persad, a post-doc­toral fel­low in the Univer­sity of Toronto’s engi­neer­ing de­part­ment, has dreamed of go­ing to space since he was 7 years old.

“It pushes one to ex­plore the lim­its of what they can ac­tu­ally do,” Persad, 32, said of be­ing an as­tro­naut.

“It pushes one to ex­plore the lim­its of what they can ac­tu­ally do.” AARON PERSAD 32-YEAR-OLD IS ONE OF MORE THAN 400 HOPE­FULS FROM TORONTO

An as­tro­naut’s diet in space can be quite re­stric­tive, but a group of Ry­er­son Univer­sity stu­dents are hop­ing to add a new op­tion to the menu.

Last week, when SpaceX launched its Fal­con 9 rocket bound for the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion (ISS), it car­ried with it a stu­dent project that will de­ter­mine whether oys­ter mush­rooms can grow in space.

The project was de­signed by three Ry­er­son un­der­grad­u­ates and two Toronto high school stu­dents to test whether oys­ter mush­rooms could one day serve as a food source for as­tro­nauts.

At home, the stu­dents are si­mul­ta­ne­ously con­duct­ing the same ex­per­i­ment, which will serve as a com­par­i­son.

“In terms of oys­ter mush­rooms, we chose this species be­cause it’s an ed­i­ble species with a high amount of fi­bre and car­bo­hy­drates but low in fat,” said Preet Kahlon, a fourth-year Ry­er­son med­i­cal physics stu­dent. “We knew that if we did some­thing that was re­silient like fun­gus . . . it would be able to serve as a source of food for as­tro­nauts.”

The ex­per­i­ment is part of the Stu­dent Space­flight Ex­per­i­ments Pro­gram, which is run by the National Cen­ter for Earth and Space Science Ed­u­ca­tion. It en­ables stu­dents to con­duct mi­cro­grav­ity ex­per­i­ments in space. Ry­er­son is the first Cana­dian univer­sity to take part.

Nathan Battersby, a fourth-year bi­ol­ogy stu­dent, brought forth the idea to ad­min­is­tra­tion in Novem­ber 2014. The univer­sity re­ceived ap­proval to par­tic­i­pate in March 2015 and held a com­pe­ti­tion un­til May of that year to de­sign the project it would send to space.

The com­pe­ti­tion also served as a men­tor­ship pro­gram. Ry­er­son un­der­grad­u­ates com­peted in groups of about five along with high school stu­dents in­ter­ested in science. Ap­prox­i­mately 130 stu­dents par­tic­i­pated.

Battersby was part of the di­rect­ing team with fac­ulty mem­bers who an­a­lyzed the pro­pos­als and nar­rowed them down to the top three, which were sent to the Smith­so­nian Space Mu­seum in Wash­ing­ton to de­cide a win­ner.

Judges were look­ing for ex­per­i­ments that were most likely to give ac­cu­rate re­sults and have real-life ap­pli­ca­tions.

“It’s not ev­ery day that you get to send some­thing to space, and it’s not like you can do your typ­i­cal science ex­per­i­ment where you send 30 tri­als and take an av­er­age,” Battersby said. “In this case, there was one ex­per­i­ment that had to work.”

The ex­per­i­ment con­sists of a tube, less than 10 millil­itres, di­vided into three sec­tions. One sec­tion con­tains spores for oys­ter mush­rooms, com­pa­ra­ble to the seeds of a plant. An­other con­tains the food source for the mush­rooms: cel­lu­lose, which gives the mush­room its struc­ture, and a wa­ter source to pro­vide mois­ture.

Af­ter a few weeks, as­tro­nauts on the ISS will carry out an ac­ti­va­tion that opens up and com­bines the two sec­tions, al­low­ing growth to be­gin.

Two weeks be­fore the ex­per­i­ment re­turns home, as­tro­nauts will ac­ti­vate the third com­part­ment of the tube, con­tain­ing a fix­a­tive to kill the fun­gus and pre­serve the project as is, sim­i­lar to a dis­sec­tion project in high school.

“Once it comes back, we want to an­a­lyze what is the vis­i­ble dif­fer­ence in growth from the ex­per­i­ment,” Kahlon said. “We’re won­der­ing how much grav­ity plays a role in the growth.”

The stu­dents plan to pub­lish their re­sults, even if no growth oc­curs. It cost $39,627 to par­tic­i­pate, which was funded by the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment, the fac­ulty of science and pres­i­dent’s of­fice at Ry­er­son, the Nat­u­ral Sci­ences and Engi­neer­ing Re­search Coun­cil of Canada, Mag­el­lan Aero­space and Bom­bardier.

“We re­ally are fo­cused on science out­reach and ex­pe­ri­en­tial learning,” said Emily Agard, di­rec­tor of science com­mu­ni­ca­tion at Ry­er­son and out­reach di­rec­tor of the project. “We’re try­ing to cre­ate a niche for our­selves, we’re try­ing to es­tab­lish our­selves and dif­fer­en­ti­ate our­selves from what other peo­ple are do­ing.”

“It’s not ev­ery day that you get to send some­thing to space, and it’s not like you can do your typ­i­cal science ex­per­i­ment.” NATHAN BATTERSBY FOURTH-YEAR BI­OL­OGY STU­DENT AND MEM­BER OF DI­RECT­ING TEAM


Team: Gemma Man­cuso, left, Ku­gen­thini Thar­maku­lasekaram, Modlin Or­ange, Fran­cis Buguis and Preet Kahlon.

A tube con­tain­ing oys­ter mush­room spores, cel­lu­lose and a wa­ter source will be ac­ti­vated and pre­served by ISS as­tro­nauts to mon­i­tor growth.

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