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Physics & Astronomy

2010 Microgravity Team

What would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most people has become an annual tradition for a team of Carthage students.

On April 7, the Carthage Microgravity Team traveled to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for the third straight year. While there, they boarded NASA’s Weightless Wonder microgravity aircraft. The plane flew a series of rollercoaster-like dips and climbs to simulate zero gravity, lunar gravity and Martian gravity — and the Carthage students floated around the plane as if they were in space.

“It’s not really an experience that everyone gets to have, feeling lunar gravity or zero gravity,” said Microgravity Team leader Samantha Kreppel, ’10. She is one of several students who made a repeat visit to the space center. “I don’t think there’s one person on that plane who isn’t smiling once we get up there.”

The team traveled to the Johnson Space Center as part of NASA’s Systems Engineering Educational Discovery program. SEED pairs NASA researchers with undergraduate student teams to design, build and conduct experiments essential to NASA goals. Selected teams spend 10 days at the Johnson Space Center, touring the facility, working on their projects, and meeting NASA astronauts and scientists. The highlight of the trip happens 24,000 to 34,000 feet in the air, as students conduct their experiments aboard NASA’s “Vomit Comet.”

An Elite Group

The Carthage Microgravity Team was one of 13 teams nationwide selected to participate in SEED this year. They were joined by teams from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Washington University, Yale University, the University of Wisconsin, Auburn University, Ohio State University, the University of Nebraska, the University of Toledo, the University of Kentucky, the University of Colorado, and Boise State University, which sent two teams to Houston.

“We were extremely excited to get into the program again,” said Samantha, a physics major from McHenry, Ill. “We have a really interesting project this year. … The last couple of years, we’ve conducted our experiments in lunar gravity. This year, our project is zero gravity.” During their flights, the Weightless Wonder flew 28 zero-gravity parabolas, three lunar gravity parabolas, and one Martian gravity parabola.

“That means a little more floating, a little less bouncing,” said team member Isa Fritz, ’10, a physics major from Kenosha. This was her third flight on the Weightless Wonder. “It’s definitely something I’ll miss next year.” Meet the 2010 team.

The Experiment: Fluid Dynamics in Microgravity

In the SEED program, student teams tackle problems suggested by NASA. “They give us a proposal and we have to design the project,” Samantha said. This year, the Carthage team conducted an experiment to determine how propellant behaves in microgravity aboard the Orion, a new crew exploration vehicle being developed by Lockheed Martin.

Students Kim Schultz and Samantha Kreppel work to construct their scaled model of an Orion propellant tank.Students Kim Schultz and Samantha Kreppel work to construct their scaled model of an Orion propellant tank.Orion has a two-part return vehicle that includes a crew module and service module. “The service module has giant tanks in it that contain all of the life support gases and liquids, as well as propellant and oxidizer for return from the moon,” said Carthage physics professor Kevin Crosby, advisor to the Microgravity Team. “We built a scale model of one of these service module tanks to assess its behavior under microgravity when it’s at various levels of propellant. The fuel in microgravity sloshes around in strange ways that can be destabilizing to the spacecraft. We’ve lost spacecraft due to propellant slosh.”

The future of Orion is uncertain, as funding for NASA’s Constellation program is not included in President Barack Obama’s 2011 budget. But even if the Constellation Program does not continue, “a lot of the technology that has been developed for it will find its way into commercial spacecraft,” Prof. Crosby said. 

The team had to design and construct a scaled model of the Orion tank, find a liquid with the same properties as Orion’s propellant, and construct a secondary container for that liquid. They began work to build the experiment since January, including a week of full-time work over Spring Break.

Worth the Effort

It’s a lot of pressure, students said, but the rewards are definitely worth the additional work.

“It’s nice to be able to see physics in the classroom, and then apply it now,” said first-time Microgravity Team member Katelyn Hartstern, ’10, of Kenosha, who is majoring in chemistry and minoring in physics. “I’m amazed that we get this opportunity three years running. I’m very proud of Carthage. Clearly we’re doing something right here.”

The only chemistry major on the team, Katelyn used her chemistry background to determine the best liquid to use in the project. She also had an opportunity to fly for the first time. “I’m super-excited that I get to float around,” she said before the trip. “As far as my career, this adds to the diversity of my experience. It’s analytical thinking and it shows you how to work as a group, which is important in whatever field you’re in.”

First-time team member Kim Schultz, ’12, of Genoa City, Wis., has heard about previous NASA trips, and was thrilled to be involved this year. While she didn’t fly aboard the Weightless Wonder, she did travel to the Johnson Space Center, tour the facility, and have the experience of working with NASA scientists. “I’m most excited to see the neutral buoyancy lab, where they do training and work on International Space Station parts,” she said before the trip. 

Students also gain experience in systems engineering, project management, and meeting customer expectations. This year, the team worked with an engineer with Lockheed Martin.

“It’s the first time they are working for an external customer that has real deadlines, and in a situation in which not succeeding has real consequences other than grades,” Prof. Crosby said. “So in that sense, it’s the good kind of pressure. It’s where what you’re doing really matters to somebody other than yourself or your professor.”

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