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Student team prepares to fly on reduced gravity aircraft

A Lamar University student team will fly an experiment aboard a reduced-gravity aircraft in July as part of the “Grant Us Space” program of NASA’s National Space Grant Consortium becoming the 12th LU team to experience weightlessness since student flights began in 1995.

The students will travel to NASA Johnson Space Center’s Ellington Field in Houston to conduct their micro-gravity experiments aboard the modified Boeing 727 aircraft operated by Zero-G Corp.

Each year, undergraduate students have the opportunity to propose, build and fly a reduced-gravity experiment. The teams will conduct the experiments aboard Zero-G’s aircraft, a modified Boeing 727, which mimics micro-gravity for 25 to 30 seconds at a time by executing a series of parabolas – a steep climb followed by a rapid descent – in designated airspace over the Gulf of Mexico.

Lamar University’s opportunity to participate was the result of the hard work and commitment of the students who put many hours into researching and building their experiments, said George Irwin, assistant professor of physics and the 2011 Distinguished Faculty Lecturer at Lamar. Irwin is serving as faculty supervisor for the team.
The team’s experiment concerns the collection of water droplets and mist by electrostatic fields. In a microgravity environment such as that of the Space Shuttle or International Space Station, free floating liquid droplets pose a potential hazard for electrical equipment. Because water is essential to human space travel, a way is needed to control water droplets in reduced gravity conditions to reduce the risk, Irwin said.

Water is highly polar by nature, and highly influenced by electrostatic field gradients. A water drop falling near an electrostatic field under Earth’s gravity is drawn toward the field as it falls. The team proposed an experiment to demonstrate that an electrostatic field could be used to manipulate and move water droplets to desired locations under microgravity. If successful, the technology could be used to create a water collection system onboard future spacecraft, Irwin said.

The experimental device the team is building for flight aboard NASA’s reduced gravity aircraft this summer is comprised of two sealed containers on either side of a van de Graaf electrostatic generator. The van de Graaf generator can safely create relatively high voltages at low current. One side will dispense varying sizes of water droplets during the periods of microgravity and the other side will dispense sprays of mist. Cameras will record the droplets and mist behavior in the electrostatic field.

“We believe the electric field will polarize the droplets, which will then be attracted via the field gradient to the high voltage electrode,” Irwin said.

One additional challenge is that a van de Graaf generator loses effectiveness if it becomes damp, so a thin membrane must shield it, Irwin said.

Jim Jordan, chair of the Department of Earth and Space Sciences echoes Irwin’s enthusiasm for the team. “When I brag about our students at NASA, I say they have a calculus book in one hand and a wrench in the other. That’s the way I like to think about our students. They are hard working and they come from a background that has a strong work ethic,” Jordan said.

All the team members were instrumental in developing the experiment proposal, a lengthy and detailed analysis required by NASA, as well as in building the experiment itself and the safety cage that will contain it when it is on the aircraft.

Students participating in the program are team leader McGarrity Stanley, a physics major from Groves; Emily McMillon, a chemical engineering major from Lumberton; Aleiya Samad, a chemical engineering major and Erin Clarke, a management information systems major, both from Nederland; Nicholas Allen, a chemical engineering major from Orange; and Gabriel Gross, a geology major from Vidor.