Team calls biospheres a 'smashing success'

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Team calls biospheres a 'smashing success'
Associated Press

TUCSON, Ariz. -- For four months, two small sealed glass cylinders packed with water, plants, snails, shrimp and other aquatic life, algae and microbes whirled around Earth aboard the Russian space station.

The experiment to see the effects of prolonged space flight was designed by two former Biosphere 2 crew members. The cylinders returned home in late January aboard the Atlantis space shuttle, which had carried the containers up to Mir in September.

"We consider it a smashing success, because we got lots of animals back," said Jane Poynter, who fashioned the study with her husband, Taber MacCallum, in concert with NASA. "They bred like crazy."

The experiment's results are still under analysis. The couple plans to present specific findings in a scientific paper before discussing them publicly.

"It worked. And that's at this point all that we can really say," MacCallum said. "We're sort of in that tricky position between knowing enough to be dangerous but not enough to want to say for sure what happened."

The ecosystems were loosely fashioned after a pond. Some of the animals and the plants, called hornwort, a hearty variety which typically grows entirely submerged in lakes and streams, have been kept alive. Those specimens will have their breeding rates studied and compared to other specimens that did not go into space.

If the space voyage ultimately is shown to have produced abnormalities, it would mean that "biology, even in aquatic animals, is dependent on gravity for successful reproduction and development to occur,"MacCallum said. Changes would not be genetic, he said.

A large container housed the clear, acrylic cylinders containing the miniature ecosystems. The twin cylinders , 7 1/2 inches tall and 3 1/2 inches in diameter, were sealedside-by-side.

They were wrapped in material to keep their temperature constant. A 7-watt fluorescent bulb provided continuous light for both, fostering plant growth, food for the animals and a carbon dioxide-oxygen exchange.

"There's a lot of interest in ways to do research with plants and animals in space over a long duration without having to have machines to keep the plants and animals alive and a lot of crew time to run the experiment," MacCallum said.

"And that's exactly what we were able to do -- put these little bottles of ecosystem up and nobody looks at them," he said. The shuttle crew did not intervene beyond making sure that the system was functioning initially. "Literally it was sight unseen,"Poynter said. "They went up there for four months. . . We spent four months biting our nails."

If the light had failed, the experiment could have just been "a big mush," she said. Pharmaceutical companies are interested in the potential that growth in space offers, because of metabolic changes under microgravity. The four-month stay also allowed for testing the effects of prolonged microgravity and high radiation.

The couple's agreement with NASA allows them to sell replicas of the miniworlds. Five percent of the revenue will fund further flights and space research, they said.

Poynter and MacCallum were among eight people who spent two years living inside Biosphere 2, an experimental closed ecological preserve outside Tucson.

The article appeared in the Houston Chronicle