Students from the University High School of Science and Engineering and the Annie Fisher STEM Magnet School in Hartford are sending a bone density experiment to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule May 19.

The University of Hartford is supporting the student project, providing tissue culture facilities and other supplies and equipment that the students did not have in their schools. University of Hartford Assistant professor of biology Aime Levesque is supporting the student project.

Bone loss is a very real problem for astronauts on long duration space flights. NASA estimates that both men and women can lose as much as 1% of their bone mass each month they are in orbit. With flights to Mars and asteroids estimated to take anywhere from several months to over a year, solving the bone loss problem is imperative for taking the next big leap in space exploration. CTTechJunkie spoke to Astronaut Cady Coleman last year who was a human test subject for some osteoporosis medications during her six months aboard the station.

The student experiment is testing the effect that parathyroid hormone has on bone cells that came from a rat. Space station safety protocols prevent human tissues from being used in experiments. The cells will be exposed to the hormone for a period of six days before a chemical will be used to stop the reaction. The experiment will return to Earth on a later cargo return mission and shipped back to the University of Hartford. Students will then measure whether the hormone had any impact on the bone cells.

The cargo return capability was a key component lost when the space shuttles were retired last year, leaving only Russian Soyuz capsules as the only means of returning experiments from orbit. The SpaceX system is designed to also return cargo from orbit, something Levesque said should reduce the time it’ll take to get their experiment back.

But right now Levesque and her students are just hoping to get the experiment off the ground.

“The students are really excited about the fact that this experiment and idea they came up with on their own was chosen to be part of this,” Levesque said, “They’ve been waiting a long time for this to finally happen, so they’re getting antsy for the launch to happen.”

Their wait may be over soon. NASA and SpaceX are aiming for a May 19 launch at Cape Canaveral Air Station in Florida.

As the hype around the first commercial launch to the space station builds, Levesque and her students are suddenly finding their bone density experiment is of interest to more than just those in the scientific community. WVIT aired a story last week that SpaceX picked up and shared on their official Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Last year another Connecticut high school sent an experiment to orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. Read more about their experiment here and here.

Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes!

Connect with Lon: