While most of Bryan slept, a handful of drowsy eighth-graders camped out at Allen Academy into the early hours Thursday to watch the launch of a NASA rocket carrying the 64 grams of weight they've spent the past year fighting for.
The students earned a chance to run an experiment in space -- or more specifically they earned a 4-centimeter cube of space on a rocket that launched out of Virginia on Thursday -- through the "Cubes in Space" competition.
Put on by the company idoodlelearning in collaboration with NASA, the program awarded 160 student groups from around the world with space on Thursday's rocket or a high-altitude scientific balloon headed to space later in the summer.
Most of the members in the Bryan group that made the cut arrived at Allen Academy on Wednesday night, trading their usual uniforms for pajamas and their backpacks for sleeping bags, to ensure they would be together to watch Thursday's 4:30 a.m. lift off from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
Running on just a few hours of sleep gotten on a cot in the school's entryway, team member Cuatro Hanover said it was "unbelievable" to watch the project he and his classmates have worked on since August leave the atmosphere.
"It's like, I've been working on that for so long, and now it's actually going into space," he said. "I don't know what to feel. It's just -- I sent something to space. I sent something to space in eighth grade."
The experiment itself grapples with a significant threat to astronauts -- radiation in space.
The students are looking to find out whether the lightweight metal gallium -- described by them as a metal that looks and feels like mercury without being toxic -- can be used to block harmful radiation in space. Their cube includes two Brazil nuts, one sealed in gallium and one without gallium covering it. Surrounding the nuts are several miniature Teflon balls, which serve as a kind of space equivalent of packing peanuts.
The cube is already back on Earth -- it only spent seven minutes in orbit -- but team member Leah Cairns said the box went through intense conditions in that short time.
"It has to go under 16 Gs upon liftoff -- that's a lot -- it will experience microgravity and it will be in suborbit for seven minutes," she said at Allen Academy as the experiment orbited above the Earth. "It'll be exposed to radiation and heat."
On Earth, gallium oozes everywhere when it heats up -- a fact that makes the material fun to play with, students attest. In space, it's not clear what the metal will do when heated up, but students say the best-case scenario is for the low amount of gravity to cause the metal to stay intact around the Brazil nut rather than ooze into the surrounding mesh of Teflon balls.
"Hopefully when it gets into space, the heat will melt the gallium…and it will stick as a bubble around it in the microgravity -- while here it would stick to each other," Cairns said shortly after liftoff.
Students will get their answers in August, when the experiment makes its way back to Bryan. They'll first look for signs of how well the gallium held up against the extreme conditions in microgravity, then they will compare the two nuts to see how effective gallium was at thwarting off radiation from the Brazil nut.
For now, Cairns said watching the rocket take off, knowing that their experiment would get to go to space, was worth the sleep deprivation.
"It's pretty cool -- I'm so tired right now," she said. "It was fun to see it launch off and know we were lucky to have this opportunity."