Spaceballs

Whether you’re a college professor or a kindergartener, JP Aerospace will take your experiment to space and back, as long as it fits into a ping-pong ball.

The organization’s volunteers aim to give everyone a chance at space exploration, and ping-pong balls set a size-limitation that let’s them do it.

About twice a year, a team of volunteers loads up a new batch of ping-pong-packed experiments into a homemade spacecraft and sets them free behind a two-story tall helium balloon.

“You can put random things in there to try,” says John Powell, the founder and “JP” of JP Aerospace. “That really never happens with space research because it’s so expensive. You have to know what is going to happen before you do it.”

The latest mission, which took off this March, had aboard 1,000 ping-pong balls from schools and researchers around the world.

Most of them were filled with simple objects like crayons, marshmallows, or gummi bears and decorated with googley eyes and paint. Others included multiple sensors and complex mini-computers.

“Most of the time, nothing is going to happen,” Powell says. “But one or two in a batch will do something amazing.”

It’s not always the most complex experiments that produce the most amazing results.

We’ve rounded up the most surprising reactions to space in this slideshow.

John Powell: Founder, “JP” of JP Aerospace
Powell founded JP Aerospace as a startup but continued working on it as a volunteer organization after funding fell through. In addition to breaking the occasional space flight record and taking photos in space for advertisements, his volunteer team has been sending ping-pong balls to space for about 10 years.
Plant Seeds
Not every seed sent to space will grow to show it, but Powell says that about one in 10 of them will show cosmic radiation damage. Bean sprouts, for instance, grow in curls or with split leaves.
Marshmallows
In the vacuum of space, marshmallows expand. But the -90 degree temperatures in space assure they don’t shrink when they re-enter a normal atmosphere. They return to Earth freeze-dried.
Gummi Bears
Powell didn’t notice the changes gummy bears undergo after a trip to space until after a kindergartner asked him why his gummi bear was “rough.”

The tiny bumps that make the gummi bear rough are caused by a phenomenon called “outgassing” in which gas that was trapped in a material is released in a vacuum.

“I ended up having this discussion about outgassing with kindergarteners,” Powell says, “ and they all got it because they were holding this gummi bear.”

Cells
A college in Belgium used JP Aerospace’s space ping-pong ball flights in their cancer research. As Powell puts it, exposing cells to cosmic rays is like “getting five years of a bad sunburn all at once.” Sending cells to space helped the university do accelerated research.
A Blank Ping-Pong Ball
When Powell got a blank ping-pong ball in a box of experiments from a school, he thought it belonged to the class slacker.

It turns out, however, elementary school student was actually conducting a college-level experiment on the effect of space on plastic. He had taken before and after measurements to see if the ball would, for instance, bounce differently (it bounces less) or have a different texture (it does) after making its trip to space.

Solar Panels
Students attached mini solar panels to a ping-pong ball and put a dead battery inside. They compared how long it took to charge the battery on the ground to in space. Unsurprisingly, cosmic rays provide solar power faster.
A Beeping Ball
One submission contained two ping-pong balls. One beeped; the other was a microphone. Because the air gets thinner higher up, to the point where it won’t travel any more, the students could tell how high their ping-pong balls were based on how well they heard the beep--until eventually they couldn’t hear it at all.
Crayon
Crayons do not do well in the -90-degree weather of space. But different colors, which have different chemical properties, break at different heights.

“You could make an altimeter with crayons,” Powell says.