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Physics & Astronomy

2008 Microgravity Team

Five Carthage students participated in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Systems Engineering Opportunity program in spring 2008. The Carthage team was one of 10 teams of students chosen from nearly 100 applicant teams to go to Houston.

“It was certainly a very interesting experience,” said Brad Frye, ’10. “It was really cool to see where NASA works, and we were treated like VIPs, so we got to see places most people don’t go.”

Brad said he was able to take special behind the scenes tours at the Johnson Space Center, including visits to mission control centers for the Apollo and space station missions.

“I found it to be an awe-inspiring, amazing experience,” said Isa Fritz, ’10. “It was amazing to work with NASA. You hear about how intelligent they are, and never think you’ll be able to join them.”

Project: Lunar Dust Filtration 

The five physics majors’ assignment was to assess the efficiency of a device used to filter out lunar dust.

“I never had to design and build something before,” said Emily Sorensen, ’09. “There are bumps along the way, to me it was fun fixing those problems and finding something that would work. I’m going into engineering and this whole program made me realize this is what I want to do.”

Lunar dust “causes health problems and messes up machinery,” said Kevin Crosby, associate professor of physics and astronomy. “This lunar dust is very fine, it’s everywhere, and Apollo astronauts had a real problem with it. The particles are so small, they can get right into lung tissues.”

But, Prof. Crosby explained, traditional filters won’t work on the lunar surface, and it would be impossible to build structures there without solving the problem.

Prof. Crosby designed a filtration device, and the five students built it. Emily said the five students would “brainstorm as a team, come up with ideas and pick the best one.”

Brad said he and his colleagues “had a lot to do, and worked hours each day building the rig. I’d say it was worth it, I learned a lot.”

Two Flights on the Weightless Wonder

Students spent 10 days at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“We had to tell them all about our project, any safety issues, and what we’d do to prevent anything bad from happening” Erin Martin, ’09, recalled. “It was pretty intense. Every day, we had to be prepared for the worst, and hope for the best.”

The highlight of the trip was two flights to an altitude of 39,000 feet, aboard a plane that provides a reduced-gravity environment, similar to that found in space. Describing parabolic maneuvers on the flights, Prof. Crosby said that “the plane just sort of drops out of the sky for three miles. It’s indescribable, the first time you experience weightlessness.”

Isa said she “asked one of the flight crew if they could spin me around at zero gravity. I’d seen astronauts spinning and twirling, and I always wondered what it would feel like.”

Erin recalled that “we only had about 30 seconds of lunar gravity to test our experiment. It was the strangest feeling. I almost hit the ceiling, and you felt so much strength in your body.” But she cautioned that “if you turn your head too much, you’ll get sick.”

At zero gravity, “you have no control,” she added. “You feel like you’re swimming, but there’s no friction. You get disoriented, because you’re not used to being able to walk on the ceiling.”

While in Houston, Erin also met an astronaut, and undertook a test of her ability to function in a low-oxygen environment.

“I was breathing really heavily,” she said, and found herself unable to answer simple questions.

‘Vibrant Physics Department” 

At Houston, most of the other teams were engineering students from much larger schools. Prof. Crosby feels Carthage’s presence was a tribute to the College’s physics program.

“We have probably one of the most vibrant physics departments in the country for schools of our size,” he said.

Emily is participating in a special five-year program for engineering students. Starting this fall she will attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison for two years. After two years, she will receive a bachelor of arts degree from Carthage, and a bachelor of science in engineering from UW-Madison. She said she will miss Carthage.

“When I came I knew the school had a good physics program,” she said. “I see professors on a daily basis, whether I have a class with them or not.”

Caitlin Pennington, ’09, said she plans to pursue a graduate degree in engineering. She said she is glad she chose Carthage because attending a smaller school gave her more options for studies.

“I’ve always wanted to work for NASA,” Caitlin added. “If I can’t be an astronaut, I’d like to support them in their mission. I was really impressed by how enthusiastic everyone was about their jobs.”

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