Team completes reduced gravity flights
“It was nothing like what I expected,” said Aaron Weatherford of his experience with reduced gravity aboard NASA’s Reduced Gravity aircraft.
Weatherford, a senior physics and mathematics major from Orange, is a member of Lamar’s 14th group to fly an experiment in zero-G conditions, and was in the second of two groups of LU students to fly June 13-14 from NASA Johnson Space Center’s Ellington Field south of Houston. The plane, a modified Boeing 727 operated for NASA by Zero-G Corp., mimics micro-gravity for 25 to 30 seconds at a time by executing a series of parabolas – a steep climb followed by a rapid decent, in designated airspace over the Gulf of Mexico.
Weatherford’s flight included 30 zero-G periods, one period at lunar gravity and one at the gravity of Mars.
“On the first parabola, I pushed off in flight toward the experiment but misjudged and hit my head on the ceiling,” Weatherford said. Fortunately the ceiling, like virtually everything else inside the cabin of the aircraft, is thickly padded.
Flying on June 13 were team leader Nicholas Allen, a senior chemical engineering major from Orange, Aleiya Samad, a senior chemical engineering major from Nederland, and Jacob Wright, an electrical engineering and physics major from Beaumont.
The following day, Weatherford flew with teammate Kirk Goza, a senior electrical engineering and physics major from Vidor, and Jason Dugas, a 2001 LU alumnus and electrical engineer at NASA .
“Because of the simplicity of the design of our experiment we were able to let it run,” Weatherford said. “The majority of the time we could take video of others enjoying the experience of weightlessness or running their experiments.”
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.
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 the faculty supervisor for the team.
The experiment examined 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 used 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 created wave pulses on the machine while an accelerometer collected and sent data to a computer where a software program converted 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.
“I’ve gained more experience of what it means to be a scientist,” Weatherford said, “and I’ve matured academically.” Weatherford also stepped up when team-leader Allen began a co-op, helping finish several details of the project.
“It was also good way of meeting people from other universities and seeing that our research was on the same level with teams from Yale, MIT, Purdue,” Weatherford said. “Obviously those schools have more resources then Lamar, but NASA saw our research as just as important as what they were proposing.”
The competition to fly a proposal is very rigorous, 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 was 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.While early indications are that the experiment behaved much as the team expected, more detailed analysis remains to be done, Weatherford said.