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Students complete successful NASA zero-g experiments

Four Lamar University students experienced weightlessness as they conducted their carefully crafted experiment aboard a reduced-gravity aircraft on July 12 and 13 as part of the “Grant Us Space” program of NASA’s National Space Grant Consortium. The four became the 12th LU team to experience weightlessness since student flights began in 1995.

team on flightAs for the experiment, “It worked out exactly like we were hoping it would,” said Nicholas Allen, a chemical engineering major from Orange, who flew on the second flight on the modified Boeing 727 aircraft operated by Zero-G Corp. for NASA.

The students spent a week at NASA’s Johnson Space Center Ellington Field in Houston prepare for the flights.
Each year, undergraduate students have the opportunity to propose, build and fly a reduced-gravity experiment. Teams conduct the experiments aboard Zero-G’s aircraft 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.

“It’s a lot of hard work but it’s worth it,” said Aleiya Samad, a chemical engineering major from Nederland. “Hard work and dedication lead to good things. It was also a good way to meet other students from across the country who are interested in the same things I’m interested in.”

Floating in zero-gThe team’s experiment focused on the collection of water droplets and mist by electrostatic fields. In a microgravity environment such as that of the 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. The technology could be used to create a water collection system onboard future spacecraft, Irwin said.

The experimental device the team built 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 dispensed varying sizes of water droplets during the periods of microgravity and the other side dispensed sprays of mist. Cameras were used to record the droplets and mist behavior in the electrostatic field.

First team“The electric field polarizes the droplets, which are then 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.

“We tested at the different distances and every single drop pulled off,” Allen said. “Farther back, they got larger before they pulled off but they all eventually pulled off and were drawn to the van de Graaf.”

“It was very much a success and I have head-cam video to prove it,” said Samad who monitored the mist side of the experiment on the second flight while Allen ran the droplet side.

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 contained it on the aircraft.

second teamHaving helped put together many of the “some assembly required” tools used in the department’s workshop, Gabriel Gross, a geology major from Vidor, became the “go to guy” when it came to building the experiment. Participating in the flights “got me interested in physics for sure,” Gross said. As for summing up the experience of weightlessness, Gross offered one word: “Wow.”

More verbose were “the documents we had to prepare to show the strength of everything and the hazard analysis. We put in months of work proving our experiment was safe to fly and would be successful. They are really, really strict on safety,” Gross said.

The strenuous study and documentation was “kind of like an application process for NASA,” he said.

“I learned a lot about research, specifically how research works at NASA which is really interesting just knowing how they go about doing things,” said Emily McMillon, a chemical engineering major from Lumberton who plans to minor in space science. McMillon, who described her experience of weightlessness as “swimming without water,” worked many hours preparing the proposal and technical reports the team was required to submit.

Other students participating in the program were team leader McGarrity Stanley, a physics major from Groves who also flew; Justice Lloyd, a biochemistry major and Patrick Todd, a music major, both from Port Neches; Erin Clarke, a management information systems major, and Will Sanderson, an electrical engineering major, both from Nederland; and Michelle Webb, a dietetics major from Humble.