Students go weightless for research
NASA takes keen interest in Carthage-developed fuel gauging technology
June 19, 2015
By Elizabeth Young
For eight straight years, Carthage students have taken on NASA’s “Vomit Comet” — and its stomach-churning ups and downs — with one noble goal: To advance spaceflight technology. Now, after 32 zero-gravity flights, eight student teams, and five separate experiments for NASA’s education division, Carthage has developed a technology that has transcended the education level and advanced straight to NASA headquarters.
- The Carthage Microgravity Team spent 10 days at Johnson Space Center in Houston in early June to conduct research aboard NASA’s zero gravity aircraft.
- The zero g plane provides periods of weightlessness by repeatedly climbing to 34,000 feet, free-falling 10,000 feet, and climbing again.
- The team was testing a novel method of measuring fuel in zero gravity, a project NASA selected as a key technology for the development of long-range space exploration.
In early June 2015, the latest iteration of the Carthage Microgravity Team boarded NASA’s zero-g aircraft to continue the College’s development of a promising new fuel-gauge technology that may change how propellant volume is measured in space.
Kevin LeCaptain ’16, Tessa Rundle ’16, Benjamin Tillema ’18, and Carthage physics professor Kevin Crosby participated in four parabolic flights aboard NASA’s C-9, a plane used to train astronauts and test equipment before sending into space.
The Vomit Comet
Flying, floating and spinning in Zero G
NASA’s C-9, often dubbed the “Vomit Comet,” flies a carefully designed parabolic trajectory that resembles a roller coaster ride over the Gulf of Mexico. The plane climbs to 34,000 feet, then free-falls 10,000 feet before climbing again. During each parabola, passengers experience about 25 seconds of zero-gravity; everything on the plane becomes weightless.
“The flight was a roller coaster ride on a massive scale,” remarks Ben Tillema, a physics major entering his sophomore year at Carthage. “You’d start by lying down with your eyes closed, feeling twice the weight of gravity press down against you [as the plane ascended]. Then you’d lift up and feel like you weighed nothing at all. You could float motionless, but the slightest push would send you flying in any and every direction.
“It is a feeling that very few people get to experience, so I feel very privileged and proud that I got to do this.”
“It was really incredible,” adds Kevin LeCaptain, a physics major from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “Without gravity holding you down, you move very easily. The difficulty is figuring out how to move about in zero g. You just float, and anything you touch doesn’t do what you expect it to do.”
How to accurately measure propellant in zero g
The students conducted their experiment alongside researchers from the U.S. Department of Defense, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Stanford University, and Northwestern University. The Carthage experiment, titled “Modal Propellant Gauging” or “MPG,” flew as one of a half-dozen projects selected for NASA’s 2015 Flight Opportunities Program.
It is an important step forward for technology that Prof. Crosby has been investigating since 2011.
“The MPG project originated in NASA’s Systems Engineering Educational Discovery program, which pairs student teams with NASA researchers for microgravity experiments, partly to inspire students and get them invested in the spirit of space exploration,” Prof. Crosby said. The Carthage team was chosen to participate in the prestigious program for all of its six years.
In 2011 the team chose to design and develop an experiment to test an idea proposed by Kennedy Space Center engineer Rudy Werlink. Mr. Werlink wanted to find a way to use a spacecraft’s natural vibrations to infer the amount of propellant left in a tank. It is currently impossible to precisely measure fuel in a zero-gravity environmnt, so all spacecraft must tow extra fuel. That can cost millions of dollars, explains Prof. Crosby. Modal Propellant Gauging may solve this problem.
“The solution we developed back in 2011 worked really well, and we’ve been refining its design ever since,” Prof. Crosby said. “What’s surprising is the accuracy of our approach; we believe it may surpass the accuracy of alternative methods of fuel gauging. The solution we’re proposing could save millions over the mission cycle of a single commercial satellite.”
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Selected by NASA for further research
In 2014, the MPG experiment was one of 10 selected for NASA’s Undergraduate Student Instrument Project (USIP) program. Prof. Crosby then applied for a NASA “recycle” — funding for repeat flights based on previous results.
“We were selected by NASA headquarters from among dozens of competing technologies to continue development as a pure research endeavor,” Prof. Crosby said. “The technology, and our data and results, were compelling enough that NASA headquarters said, ‘we’re going to invest in this project.’”
This particular technology that Carthage students helped to develop is one of a handful of viable spaceflight technologies that NASA is actively pursuing, he said.
“The cool thing is that NASA is interested in the technology that Carthage has developed,” said team leader Tessa Rundle, a physics major from Dodgeville, Wisconsin. “They came to us and gave us this flight opportunity because they want to use our fuel gauging method. Not a lot of people get to conduct research for NASA, especially as an undergraduate.”
Foundation for the Future
The Carthage students spent 10 days at Johnson Space Center, meeting with engineers and touring NASA facilities. Those tours included unusual floor access to NASA’s Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, where the team saw Robonaut, climbed into the cockpit of the Space Shuttle trainer, and took a wild ride in the brand new Modular Robotic Vehicle, a car that can travel up to 40 mph in any direction, including sideways.
The Carthage students were three of just four undergraduate students participating in the week’s flights, so they presented their work for NASA review alongside career scientists and engineers. “It was a little intimidating, but it’s also really cool that we get to be in an environment with people who are where we want to be someday,” Tessa said.
That’s the point, said Prof. Crosby. Yes, the zero g flight is incredible. But it’s just part of the overall experience.
“Our students gain research experience, engineering design experience, and valuable experience with the NASA systems engineering paradigm by going through a full series of experiment design reviews from concept to mission readiness to flight readiness,” he explained. “They will be steps ahead of their peers in having not just participated in, but really managed a complex engineering design project using the same exacting standards that NASA uses to put people into orbit.”
“It’s extremely unusual for undergraduate students to have such a high-level experience and consistent opportunities to participate in rewarding research that matters to NASA.”
“Being in zero gravity was amazing and fun,” Tessa said, “but I thought the entire process of working on the experiment, getting the data, and doing the data analysis was such a great opportunity. And knowing that I’m working on a technology that may actually be used in space in the future is just really cool to me.”