In April of 2013, our lab performed an experiment with Starfighters Aerospace, located in Kennedy Space Center. This company uses Lockheed F-104s to create the same extreme g-forces felt during suborbital missions. These craft are able to fly at Mach 2.2 and are able to climb to altitudes over 90,000 feet. For more information, visit http://www.starfighters.net/
But what do Starfighters have to do with plants? Our experiment looked at plant transcriptome response to suborbital flight profiles. The basic question we asked was, “What would plants feel during a suborbital flight?” We were also asking if an untrained civilian (represented here by our two PIs, Dr. Rob Ferl and Dr. Anna-Lisa Paul) could be tasked to perform certain functions during the flight, such as taking various measurements and harvesting plants in a special chemical fixation unit designed at Kennedy Space Center called a KFT. We also flew more plants in the two separate cargo holds, one of which was pressurized. We are currently analyzing the data from microarrays, which tell us the transcriptional profile of the plants from KFTs, and will soon be analyzing the differences in atmospheric pressures, in addition to the g-forces felt on this kind of flight.
The flight itself consisted of a high-speed takeoff, three lateral turns, a high-speed, low-altitude run, followed by a 90-degree vertical climb. The F-104 then turned upside-down, resulting in about 10 seconds of zero gravity, then began the high-g descent. This profile is similar to the forces that will be felt on suborbital craft, the only difference being the amount of time in zero gravity. The entire process was repeated two to three times for each flight. The video below is a montage of the two flights from that day that represents the flight profile and some of the activities performed onboard.