ROUND ROCK, TX (KXAN) – McNeil High School students will soon get to send their work to space. Last semester, students from McNeil entered into NASA’s Tech Rise Student Challenge, a national competition where students of all ages would get the opportunity to place an experiment they built onto a rocket that will launch next year.

Students from McNeil High School in Round Rock, TX were one of the winners of NASA’s Tech Rise Challenge. (Courtesy: KXAN/Tim Holcomb)

McNeil High School is one of the 57 schools from across the nation that won the challenge, beating out hundreds of other schools.

“Our whole experiment has to be in this box, and it has to be less than one pound,” said senior Camden Stabeno as he walked KXAN through their project.

Their project could help astronauts traveling through deep space: It is all about water purification.

Getting water on the way to Mars

The students are using a powder that, when added to dirty or grey water, can remove bacteria and dirt.

“Many of us were inspired by a video by this YouTuber named Mark Rober who made a video like showcasing this like particulate powder and how it was helping to purify water in like low income countries,” said senior Changxu Liu.

Here’s how their experiment works: Dirty water is placed inside a little orange dish inside a box provided by NASA. Inside the orange dish is a motorized blade that can mix the grey water with the powder that the students added.

“We made the blade this type of design so that it would thoroughly mix the water in microgravity,” Stabeno said.

The powder causes what’s called Coagulation Flocculation. Some basic science here: the powder has an opposite electrical charge to the dirt and bacteria in the water. So like two magnets with opposite charges, the powder and dirt are attracted to each other.

When mixed, bacteria in the water clings to the powder forming lumps that sink to the bottom. Those clumps can then be separated from the water.

Schools that won NASA’s Tech Rise Challenge have to fit their entire project in a small box. (Courtesy: KXAN/Tim Holcomb)

Once some disinfectant is added to the water, to kill viruses, it is safe to drink.

This experiment can be done on Earth. In the video that inspired the students, Mark Rober suggests using a similar powder in low income country where clean water is hard to come by.

The students want to know if the same process can occur in space. “Astronauts will be needing to stay in space for a long time, they will be needing to like reuse the water,” Liu said.

Sending High School Science to Space

The McNeil High Schoolers plan to build several prototypes of their experiment. NASA provided them with the box their experiment must fit in. The whole thing must weigh less than a pound. The students made alterations to the box to make it lighter.

The experiment will consist of the dish where the water is mixed, a motorized blade to mix the water and powder and “we’re gonna have pH probes, conductivity probe, and cameras pointing at this thing to evaluate the effectiveness effectiveness of the experiment,” Liu said.

NASA provided the students $1,500 to pay for their experiment. The final project is due at the end of the semester.

The rocket NASA will launch the experiment on will reach the upper atmosphere, where microgravity exists, before returning to Earth.

“It makes me feel really great that NASA actually believed in us and believed in our proposal. It’s really an amazing opportunity and couldn’t have asked for more,” said senior Avinash Verma.

NASA plans to launch the experiment next year.