The YouTube Space Lab program aims to get students thinking about outer space as their experimental sphere.
Can zero gravity open the way to better fungicides, novel types of liquid circuitry and magnets ... and previously unseen snowflake shapes? Those are the kinds of questions that six teams of teens want to answer as they move into the final phase of the YouTube Space Lab competition.
The regional winners were named today and will gather in Washington next month for a series of events and tours, including a March 22 awards ceremony. The contest is divided into two age categories, for 14- to 16-year-olds and 17- to 18-year-olds. Three teams were selected in each category to represent the Americas, the Asia-Pacific region, and the Europe/Africa/Middle East region.
While they're in Washington, the teens will be treated to a weightless airplane flight and a special tour and dinner at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center, which will be home to the retired space shuttle Discovery by that time.
The regional winners were chosen in a process that was guided by judges as well as by votes cast by more than 150,000 YouTube users. Next month, the judges will announce the top teams in the two age categories. Those teams will have their zero-G experiments run on the International Space Station and live-streamed on YouTube over a Lenovo laptop. The two top teams can travel to Japan this summer to watch their experiment launch as part of Japan's robotic HTV-3 space station supply mission — or they can choose to go through cosmonaut training in Russia once they turn 18.
One of the experiments would send a bacteria with fungus-fighting properties, known as Bacillus subtilis, into space to see whether growth in weightlessness enhances its virulence. Earlier experiments have shown that to be the case for salmonella bacteria, a common culprit in food poisoning.
The other proposed experiments would study how zero-G affects surfactants, ferrofluid magnets, ice crystallization, heat transfer and even the hunting habits of jumping spiders. Rather than going into the details here, let's have the regional winners themselves explain their research:
Regional winners from the Asia-Pacific region in the 14-to-16 category: New Zealand's Patrick Zeng and Derek Chan want to answer the question "Is space too cold for life to exist?"
Regional winners from Europe, Middle East and Africa in the 14-16 category: Spain's Laura Calvo and Maria Vilas want to look at how surfactants affect the oil-water interface in microgravity. Could weightless liquids be the key to better gadgets?
Regional winners from the Americas in the 14-16 category: Michigan's Sara Ma and Dorothy Chen want to see whether zero-G increase the virulence of fungus-fighting Bacillus subtilis.
Regional winner from the Asia-Pacific region in the 17-18 category: India's Sachin Kukke wants to study ferrofluid magnets in microgravity.
Regional winner from Europe, Middle East and Africa in the 17-18 category: Egypt's Amr Mohamed wants to see whether a jumping spider will change its hunting strategy in zero-G.
Regional winner from the Americas in the 17-18 category: Massachusetts' Emerald Bresnahan wants to study snowflake production in microgravity - a phenomenon that may have implications for other structures seen in space.
The Space Lab competition is sponsored by YouTube, Lenovo and Space Adventures, in cooperation with NASA, the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. The man behind the idea is Zahaan Bharmal, Google's head of marketing operations for Europe, Middle East and Africa.
"This grand project demonstrates that math and science matter," Bharmal said in today's announcement of the regional winners. "These six winners represent the next generation of scientists and even space explorers. Their families, schools, local communities and countries should be very proud."
Amen to that.
More about student science projects:
- Hey, kids! Put your space experiment in orbit
- Biochemist bags top prize at Google Science Fair
- Obama takes his best shot at White House science fair
- Formerly homeless teen gets presidential shout-out
Alan Boyle is science editor at msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding the Cosmic Log Google+ page to your circles. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.