Sirisha Bandla, the Indian-origin aeronautical engineer aboard the Virgin Galactic fully crewed spaceflight will be activating a NASA-supported plant experiment at critical data-collection stages during the flight. According to NASA, Bandla, the second India-born woman to fly to space, will be operating the experiment on the “Unity 22” flight on behalf of co-investigators from the University of Florida.
Bandla, who is the vice president of government affairs and research operations at Virgin Galactic, will activate three plant-filled tubes to release a preservative at critical data-collection stages just before entering microgravity, and after the conclusion of microgravity, according to Hindustan Times.
Although researchers in the University of Florida have flown similar experiments on suborbital flights in the past, data collected during the Unity 22 flight will provide a “first look at human-tended payloads on SpaceShipTwo.”
Two researchers from the university have been, for years, using plants to study biological changes in organisms when they travel through the Earth’s atmosphere and into space with an aim to find answers to fundamental research questions.
Co-principal investigators Robert Ferl and Anna-Lisa Paul started studying how plants respond to microgravity on the molecular level with space shuttle experiments in the late 1990s and found that they behave quite differently in space compared to on the ground.
“About half of the genes in our bodies encode the exact same proteins in plants and that’s very exciting because it means that as we look at how plants behave in the absence of gravity, we can translate many of those basic biological processes to humans," media reports quoted Paul as saying.
Bandla is part of the six-member crew alongside the founder of Virgin Galactic Sir SiRichard Branson and the flight will make her the second Indian-born woman to go into space after Kalpana Chawla and the fourth Indian to fly into space.