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Students prepare to fly experiment in zero-G

Aaron Weatherford

A team of Lamar University students and their faculty advisor will become the 14th group from LU to fly an experiment aboard NASA’s Reduced Gravity aircraft. The team’s experiment, wave dispersion on a torsion wave machine in accelerated reference frames, will be flown on two flights scheduled for June 14-15.

The team will travel to NASA Johnson Space Center’s Ellington Field in Houston to conduct their micro-gravity experiments. The students 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.

Preparing the experiment for the flights are: Nicholas Allen, team leader, a senior chemical engineering major from Orange; Aleiya Samad, a senior chemical engineering major from Nederland; Jessica Plaia, a senior industrial engineering and physics major from Beaumont; Kirk Goza, a senior electrical engineering and physics major from Vidor; Alejandro Gonzalez, a junior electrical engineering and physics major from Beaumont; Zach Jones, and electrical engineering and physics major from Orange; Jacob Wright, electrical engineering and physics from Beaumont; and Aaron Weatherford, a senior physics and mathematics major from Orange. Allen, Goza, Samad, Weatherford and Wright will be flying with the experiment.  Gonzalez will be the flight alternate. Allen and Samad are veterans of the program, having flown with an LU experiment in 2011.

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.

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 Rafael de la Madid, assistant professor of physics, who is serving as faculty supervisor for the team.

Weatherford, who is serving as the designated team contact with NASA, became interested in the reduced gravity flight opportunity when working with de la Madrid on a rail gun project and sees a lot of value in going through the rigorous process required by the agency.

Jessica Plaia

“Writing proposals to NASA’s standards, ordering materials and interacting with people on a business level, and the many interesting engineering aspects to the project are things you just don’t learn inside the classroom,” Weatherford said.

Plaia, who won’t be able to participate in the flights as she is beginning an internship with Webber Aircraft in Gainesville, still sees the experience of working as a team on a major project as a valuable experience. “It’s really good working as a team to manage a project over many months,” she said.

The experiment will be examining resonate frequencies to determine how they differ in zero gravity. “Gravity acts on the way waves disperse,” Weatherford said. “In engineering applications and construction, we know that resonate frequency can damage a structure. Take for example the well-known collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940 and the lateral vibrations of the Millenium Bridge in London.”

The student’s experiment will use two torsional wave machines that are commonly used to demonstrate different aspects of waves to examine wave phenomena at gravitational accelerations of zero and approximately 1.8 g. An oscillator will create wave pulses on the machine while an accelerometer collects and sends data to a computer where a software program converts the signal into frequency spectrums for later analysis.

The experiments findings many not only be germane to structures, but also to the behavior of fluids, where undesirable resonances could lead to incidents of damage or systems failure, de la Madrid said.

“The competition to fly a proposal is very rigorous now,” said Jim Jordan, chair of the Department of Earth and Space Science. “Only 14 schools were selected to fly this year, down from as many as 96 schools several years ago. That tells me that this research is of some interest to NASA.”

 “We have been very proud of this group for their tenacity, understanding of what needs to be done and relentlessness work ethic,” Jordan added.