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Carthage enters higher NASA orbit

  • The 2014 Carthage USIP Team posing with their experiment in Houston.
    Mikaley Osley ’14

By Tom Applegarth

July 23, 2014

For a seventh straight year, the Carthage Microgravity Team is conducting research aboard a NASA parabolic aircraft. This time, it’s part of a brand new program that promises to give students the richest experience yet.

The NASA Science Mission Directorate approved Carthage’s proposal to continue studying fuel gauging technology in zero gravity. The team’s work could help NASA come up with a solution to one of the biggest barriers of deep space exploration. In essence, the type of fuel gauge used in vehicles on Earth doesn’t work in zero-g, so the team is working on one that will and could be used in future spacecraft and satellites.

Carthage was one of nine schools the space agency selected for the new Undergraduate Student Instrument Project, or USIP. The Carthage team was awarded a $68,000 grant to conduct an experiment aboard NASA’s zero-gravity aircraft. Other USIP schools were awarded funds for research using sounding rockets, high altitude balloons, or suborbital re-usable launch vehicles (sRLVs).

The Carthage team is at the Johnson Space Center in Houston this week to fly their experiment aboard NASA’s Weightless Wonder, a plane that provides periods of weightlessness by flying a series of parabolas over the Gulf of Mexico. The students will be the only undergraduate team on a research flight that also includes researchers and engineers from Northwestern University, NASA-Glenn Research Center, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I am so excited for the zero-gravity flight,” said Mikaley Osley ’14, who graduated from Carthage in May with a degree in theatre and English, and was selected to document the team’s progress in video. “This is such a cool opportunity, especially for a fine arts student. Never in a million years did I ever think I would be working at NASA, especially with my fields of study.”

Meet the Team

Carthage’s USIP team includes:

  • Eric Ireland ’15, a physics and mathematics major from Kenosha
  • Eli Favela ’14, a mathematics and physics major from Palatine, Illinois
  • Seth Schofield ’14, a physics major from Kenosha
  • Daisy Bower ’16, a physics and mathematics major from Taylor Ridge, Illinois
  • Kyle Weber ’15, a physics major in the dual degree engineering program from Edwardsville, Illinois
  • Mikaley Osley ’14, a theatre and English major from Centennial, Colorado

Einstein, Hubble, Sagan and Carthage

Over the past few months, the students built the experiment, developing and testing a novel technique to measure the mass of liquid in a propellant tank. After the end of the school year, the team began working at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin.

Heralded as “the birthplace of modern astrophysics,” the observatory was built in 1897 by the University of Chicago and houses the world’s largest refracting telescope used for scientific research.

Over the years, the observatory has been home to some of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century. In 1917, Edwin Hubble, for whom the Hubble Telescope is named, performed his graduate work at the observatory. After winning the Nobel Prize in 1921, Albert Einstein used the observatory to conduct experiments that would help prove the theory of relativity, and Carl Sagan spent four years in the late ’50s completing his Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics.

“Being able to engage and be a part of one of the most influential sites of 20th century astrophysics, has been such a joy,” said Microgravity team member Daisy Bower. “It’s definitely a great memory of my college career so far.”

Onward to Houston

All the work at Carthage and at Yerkes has lead to Ellington Field and the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The team is there now putting finishing touches on their experiment and preparing to experience weightlessness aboard NASA’s Weightless Wonder, a unique aircraft that simulates zero-gravity conditions. 

“It’s a substantial investment NASA is making in our students, so that’s exciting,” said Professor Kevin Crosby, the Microgravity Team’s faculty advisor and chair of the Division of the Natural Sciences. “This is going to be a much improved version of the experiment we’ve done in the past.”

Past Carthage teams already have flown fuel gauging experiments twice on parabolic flights and once on a sounding rocket. In collaboration with researchers at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Carthage students have developed a method that uses vibrations from sound waves to calculate the amount of liquid in a tank.

“This work is incredibly exciting for me and promising for not only NASA, but commercial space flight as a whole,” said team member Kyle Weber. “To think that something I’m working on might be implemented — to any degree — into space shuttles and satellites just leaves me speechless.”

In addition to the Carthage project’s scientific promise, Prof. Crosby said reviewers appreciated the multidisciplinary makeup of the squad with Mikaley producing multimedia updates on the team’s progress.

Continuing a Tradition

Carthage students have flown aboard the Weightless Wonder every year since 2008 while performing research with NASA engineers. The College was only one of two institutions in the country to be selected each of the six years the Systems Engineering Educational Discovery (SEED) flight program was offered.

Although the SEED program received no federal funding for the 2014 flight year, Prof. Crosby noted that the USIP research grant exposes students to even more robust research tracks. Other institutions chosen for USIP include Carnegie Mellon University and several large state schools.

“In this case, the research goal is primary,” he said. “It’s good to have our program recognized for its own merits, rather than the perceived educational benefits to the students.”

Participants in both of the College’s space science programs regularly present their findings at national and international conferences. After graduation, some have gone on to forge careers in aerospace engineering.

Eric has enjoyed swapping expertise with other talented teams around the country and chipping away at the same obstacles that professional researchers are trying to remove. A year ago, he did similar fuel gauging studies as part of Carthage’s RockSat team, then spent the summer analyzing the data through the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience.

While looking into a variety of graduate programs, he’s confident the microgravity work will raise his odds of succeeding in any of them.

“The space sciences here at Carthage have opened up so many doors for my future,” Eric said. “Through these projects, I have logged hundreds of hours creating software modules, building experiments, testing equipment, and analyzing data. All of this firsthand experience has put me above and beyond in the classroom and helped my near future when entering the workforce.”

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