Roughly 87% of private schools have fewer than 300 students. Whether it’s a team of private high school students, public students, or college kids, if these students work hard enough, they can make some truly magical discoveries. Elon Musk’s space exploration project SpaceX has had great success lately with their rocket launching ventures, and have been able to send their latest rocket, the Falcon 9, towards the International Space Station on June 29, 2018. What’s a successful rocket without some experiments onboard to get the most value out of expensive and time-consuming launches? For this journey, Falcon 9 carried experiments designed by students who internationally worked with the DreamUp initiative.
A particularly standout group were the students of the U.S.-based Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP), who surprised their team leaders with their experiments about natural processes occurring in microgravity, including how some seeds germinate, how brine shrimp eggs hatch, and how planarian worms regrow their tails. Most bizarrely, the SSEP students formulated an experiment to observe how saliva decays teeth in space using baby teeth saved by a student’s mother and a generous cup of spit supplied by another SSEP student.
It’s relatively well-known that astronauts need good teeth that will survive the rough conditions of take-off and landing, but the behavior of enamel and the general integrity of teeth in space and upon their return to Earth is still being carefully studied. Baby teeth are placeholders for adult teeth and naturally differ a bit from the adult teeth of astronauts, but both still have a layer of hard enamel that is constantly exposed to saliva in the mouth.
Until someone can morally offer up some spare adult teeth, spare baby teeth will have to do. The hard protective layer of enamel on baby teeth is much thinner than on adult teeth — hence why baby teeth tend to be much more pearly-white than adult teeth. The students will have to keep this difference in mind when studying the results of the experiment.
While these experiments may seem “out there,” they’re not out of the realm of the ordinary for space exploration or science in general. Science is constantly making important discoveries from strange or accidental means, such as penicillin. As Isaac Asimov said, “the most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…'”
Back on the ground, students will conduct comparison experiments in regular Earth gravity for collecting data that will be comparable to the microgravity experiments. ISS astronauts will complete the remainder of the Falcon 9’s experiments upon arrival, and the results will be shuttled back to the Earth on the SpaceX Dragon capsule. The findings should serve as a precursor for larger-scale and more ambitious experiments in the students’ future.