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Computer problems sideline WCSAR wheat project

A computer malfunction in the University of Wisconsin-Madison's project aboard the Mir Space Station has scuttled an effort to grow wheat plants from seed to seed in space.

The three-month experiment aboard the Russian space station began in February, but the computer problems interrupted the project roughly a day after its startup aboard Mir, said Raymond Bula, director of the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics (WCSAR). The glitch prevented WCSAR scientists from being able to control the growing conditions for the wheat plants. Astroculture mission patch

WCSAR scientists can learn from the malfunction for future projects aboard the International Space Station, Bula says. The group has sent a replacement computer control board on the progress module that docked with Mir recently. When the new board is installed next week, the equipment will be tested again.

Bula said the failure occurred in the central processor of the computer, and likely resulted from increased radiation levels that exist in some parts of Mir's orbit. The Russian space station uses a different orbit than the NASA space shuttles, where previous WCSAR experiments have been conducted, he said.

Higher radiation levels damaged the computer's ability to function, Bula said, and the equipment did not have a protective covering in place to shelter it from the increased exposure.

"The real heartbreaking thing is that preparing a project like this requires an immense amount of dedicated effort from many people," said Bula. "We try to prepare for every possible eventuality that our hardware might experience, but this one was really unexpected."

Although disappointing, Bula said these problems are faced frequently when conducting research in space. "Each experience teaches us how to avoid the problem in the future," he said.

The latest WCSAR project was significant as an attempt to have a food plant grow from a seed to a mature plant entirely in space. WCSAR uses a plant growth chamber that can control the plant's environment, regulating the water, air and light the plants receive.

In 1996, WCSAR succeeded in getting leaf cuttings of a potato to grow tubers aboard the space shuttle.

The wheat project marked the sixth NASA-sponsored flight run by WCSAR. It began aboard the NASA Space Shuttle Endeavor, and is expected to return aboard another shuttle flight in May. WCSAR has another plant experiment scheduled aboard the NASA space shuttle in October 1998.