Finding the perfect recipe for space: HUMMUS1 takes off

The inaugural Australian Universities Rocket Competition was the launchpad for a rocket that carried an important payload – an experiment to find out how to feed future outer space colonies.
Monday, 27 May, 2019
Ivy Shih

A rocket has carried a bacterial experiment – and the aspirations of UNSW Science students – to new heights during the inaugural Australian Universities Rocket Competition. 

Inside the rocket was an innocuous looking white container – but it held an important UNSW Science experiment that will hopefully shed light on how forces associated with space travel affect bacteria and plant growth, which is critical when transporting supplies to feed future Moon and Mars colonies. 

The rocket was built by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics – a UNSW Engineering student society (AIAA UNSW), and the competition was held in southwest Queensland earlier this year.

The experiment, fittingly named HUMMUS1, is looking into how space conditions impact the survival of rhizobia, a type of bacteria commonly found in the root system of legumes. Rhizobia is essential to the healthy and successful plant growth of many crops. Legumes – like chickpeas – are a staple in agriculture.  

HUMMUS1 contained rhizobium in a few formats: peat (a soil-like environment), petri dishes and a liquid nutrient broth. This was the precious cargo that was part of the rocket’s payload. The results hope to highlight the impact of vibrations and g-forces on the bacteria and show the type of environment they thrive in most. 

The SAAS Mission payload that went into the rocket. The sponsors and supporters of the project are written on the sides of the payload.

HUMMUS1 is the product of two years of hard work by SAAS Missions (Science and Agricultural Application in Space Missions), an undergraduate student group working on agricultural experiments in space. SAAS Missions is a branch of Biosphere, a student society founded in late 2018 by biology student Scarlett Li-Williams. The project itself initially started in 2017 when Scarlett began her studies. She is currently in the final year of her degree.  

The experiment was declared a triumph as the rocket successfully launched and the parachute deployed, delivering the bacteria safely to the ground ready to be analysed.  

The successful rocket launch marked a milestone for SAAS Missions – and it was an emotional moment for Scarlett. 

“The actual moment of the launch was beyond anything I could have imagined, to see the rocket go up followed by the parachute successfully deployed. I was suddenly swept in a wave of indescribable emotions,” she says. 

“The last few years have been leading up to this initial experiment. The months of continuous late nights, endless organisational nightmares and constantly changing experiment protocols – it all came down to that moment of the rocket launch.”

“After the successful collection of the rocket, the celebrations began for the engineers but for the biologists it seemed the work was only starting, as we had to examine the results,” Scarlett says.

“We can now begin investigating the results of the launch back in the sterile labs at UNSW – with thankfully four solid walls and under the generous supervision of Dr Brendan Burns (BABS and ACA), who has been a supporter and sponsor throughout the project since it first started in 2017.”

The SAAS Mission team: Yasmin Akhtar (left), Scarlett Li-Williams (centre), and Ashleigh Ford

The SAAS Mission Team that got the experiment off the ground: Yasmin Akhtar (left), Scarlett Li-Williams (center) and Ashleigh Ford (right)

The team is now analysing the samples at UNSW Sydney and the Institute of Agriculture, University of Sydney. Early results indicate that the applied g-forces and vibrations from the rocket launch do affect bacterial growth and appearance.  

When analysis is finalised the research team of undergraduates will submit the results to a peer-reviewed journal. 

The results of the experiment will be instrumental for the next mission, named HUMMUS2. The HUMMUS2 experiment  will take a journey on the CubeSat to the International Space Station in 2021 to study the effects of lunar and mars conditions on the bacteria and plant populations. The CubeSat was provided by the International Space University. 

This project was an interdisciplinary collaboration of multiple companies, universities, societies and faculties, including Jade Hartley and Ivan Kennedy from the Pulsford Lab at the University of Sydney’s Institute of Agriculture, who contributed the bacterial cultures, medium and mentoring of the experiment itself. 

The mission was possible by the generous sponsorship and donations by the UNSW Science’s Schools of BABS and BEES, ACA, New Edge Microbials, Biohacking Society UNSW and BioFoundry. 

You can read more about the competition in this UNSW Newsroom article.