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UND researchers use plankton to help man get to Mars

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GRAND FORKS - A team of UND grad students capped off a year-long, NASA-Sponsored experiment near Barnesville Friday.

According to the team, their work could be important when it comes to humans surviving space travel.

Occasionally, some of the smallest things, are also some of the greatest.

"That little cloud you can see is a microbe," says Dinonauts Lead Scientist Laura Banken, as she points to a beaker full of tiny organisms.

The creatures are called Dinoflagellates. They are small plankton, which light up when shaken.

The microscopic critters are a big deal, thanks to the work of graduate students and researchers from UND as well as other field experts.

The "Dinonauts" are a research team devoted to learning about how microgravity affects dinoflagellates. Months worth of planning has led them to a field north of Barnesville.

The dinoflagellates are placed in a specially designed compartment full of gadgets which measure data.

"It knows the altitude, its temperature," explains Terry Rector, an aerospace engineer who designed the compartment for the experiment.

His design is attached to a massive weather balloon.

Before liftoff, the balloon is almost 20 feet tall. But as it reaches it's peak altitude, it swells to the size of a school bus.

Once the balloon is high enough, it will expands and bursts. Then the team will find the payload, which is attached to a parachute.

"That's why we have the Iridium GPS onboard: that will tell us every 30 seconds the altitude and the velocity and where it's located," explains UND researcher Denise Buckner.

But why launch plankton 90 thousand feet into the air?

"As we pursue going to places like Mars, and long duration space flight, it's important to understand who the human body will react long-term," explains Banken.

The science is complicated, but put simply, the team is looking to learn about how the pressure up near space affects the creatures.

That information can help researchers learn more about how plants and even people react to being in space.

After some last minute adjustments, and some threats from the weather, everybody was ready for launch.

"3...2...1," the team counted off before letting the balloon go.

And just like that, as the balloon drifted off with a year's worth of work and planning, what was great, again became small.

The balloon stayed airborne for about 90 minutes. The payload landed roughly 60 miles northeast of Barnesville.