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USU GROUP EN ROUTE TO WATCH LAUNCH

Five Utah State University students and a veteran space science professor left Logan Tuesday morning, driving to Florida to watch the launch of the space shuttle Discovery.

When Discovery blasts off from Cape Canaveral, aboard will be a set of four experiments built by the team. The experiments, to be carried out in space, range from materials science to distillation to biology.In addition, the USU package will carry popcorn and radish seeds into space in an experiment by elementary students who go to school on the Logan campus.

Raghuram Tumkar, one of the university experimenters, told the Deseret News on Tuesday shortly before they left that the group is excited about the prospect of seeing the liftoff.

"We just hope that the shuttle takes off - and the experiments work, of course," he said.

The experiments are stowed in a "GAS can" in the shuttle. The acronym stands for Get-Away-Special canister, a low-cost way for student experiments to get into space. This will be the seventh flight of USU canisters, said university spokeswoman Lynette Harris.

Students labored several years assembling the experiment package. This spring, trying to get it finished in time for the launch, they spent grueling work sessions, including 20-hour days.

Those driving to Florida are Tumkar, Casey Hatch, Matt Droter, Mike Wilkinson and Mark Wilkinson, all students, and their professor, Gil Moore. Driving in two vans, they plan to turn back if they hear along the way that the flight was delayed.

Another USU experimenter, Dan Tebbs, was planning to fly to Florida for the launch.

Tumkar said the USU canister contains:

- A "wax bridge" experiment.

"We have four wax columns of different lengths, and they are supported between two copper blocks, which can be heated. The idea is to heat the wax column, and that melts the wax."

While the wax is liquid, it doesn't drip, as happens on Earth, because there's not much gravity in orbit. But there is microgravity, and the microgravity and other forces will deform the liquid.

"That gives us an idea of the kind of forces that are present there," Tumkar said. When the heat is shut off, the wax solidifies again, retaining the deformation.

Patterns left in the wax should give researchers an idea of how they can manufacture alloys in space.

- A bubble interferometer. The device will blow a bubble in space, which will be heated on once side. "We are filming the whole sequence," he said.

Differences in the thickness of the bubble's side, caused by the uneven heating, will show up in interference patterns on the surface. The movies of the experiment may indicate how structures in space will change when they are heated on one side by the sun.

- A biology experiment, measuring the efficiency of photosynthesis in microgravity. The experiment uses a lichen, a primitive plant that is formed of a fungus and algae.

- An experiment in distillation in microgravity. "This experiment was basically conceived by a school in Houston, Texas," he said. USU built the device for Kinkaid School.

- An experiment to see if seeds are affected by space. Children from the Edith Bowen Elementary School, a laboratory school at USU, are sending popcorn seeds and radish seeds into space aboard the GAS can.

"They have similar samples which they maintain here on Earth," Tumkar said.

Once the shuttle lands and the canister is returned to USU, the kids will pop the popcorn and grow the radish seeds, comparing the results with those that stayed in Logan. They'll be able to see for themselves whether space causes giant, mutated popcorn kernels.