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Physics & Astronomy

Taking Flight for Science

The Journal Times, Racine, WI
March 15, 2011

The following article appeared in the print and online versions of The Journal Times on March 15, 2011. It has been reprinted here with permission. See the article on The Journal Times website here.

KENOSHA — For all the decades that people have been flying in space, they have lacked one critical piece of knowledge: how much fuel is left in the tank.

In the hope of solving this longstanding problem, in a few weeks a group of Carthage students intend to enter zero gravity. They’re not heading into orbit but to a plane that is part of NASA’s microgravity flight program.

Above: Some of the members of the 2011 Carthage Microgravity Team. From left: Steven Mathe, Kim Schultz, Amber Bakkum and Danielle Weiland. Top: Amber Bakkum and Kim Schultz work on their experiment. Carthage College photosAbove: Some of the members of the 2011 Carthage Microgravity Team. From left: Steven Mathe, Kim Schultz, Amber Bakkum and Danielle Weiland. Top: Amber Bakkum and Kim Schultz work on their experiment. Carthage College photosIt amounts to an airborne roller coaster. An aircraft flies a series of parabolas like a roller coaster climbing hills and then zooming down the other side. As the plane begins its descent, for about 30 seconds its acceleration matches that of Earth’s gravity; gravity is neutralized, and everything inside the plane floats just as you may have floated for a split second when a car you were in sailed over a rise in the road.

The idea for what they’ll do came from NASA research engineer Rudy Werlink. On Earth, gravity holds fuel down in your car so it can be measured. In a basement workroom at Carthage College is an aluminum frame with a pair of tanks bolted to it, and taped to one tank is an actuator that hits it thousands of times per second. Think of the different sounds you hear when you tap a glass that’s full and another that’s half-full. In zero gravity, fuel adheres slightly to the inside of a tank, and Werlink hopes the Carthage experiment tank will respond like the beer glass and resonate at a different frequency depending on how full it is.

To experience those 30-second glimpses of spaceflight, the Carthage students have invested months of time. To win one of the nine team spots in this round of flights, they had to write a research proposal. They had to work out a budget, handle the money, and handle the pages and pages of paperwork, said Kevin Crosby, an associate professor of physics who is the team’s adviser and chair of the college’s Natural Sciences Division. And they had to spend weeks designing, building and testing their experimental package while pushing to make practical use of school knowledge.

“The underlying principles are covered in class, but to actually apply it was kind of a steep learning curve for me,” said Amber Bakkum, a junior from Zion, Ill. She did the load analysis to make sure the experimental package will not break apart and bounce around inside the airplane.

Stephanie Finnvik, a junior from Brooklyn Park, Minn., flew last year. She was lucky; only three people fly from each team.

“I don’t know; there’s really no way to describe the feelings. It was like a roller coaster times a million,” she said.

Becoming an astronaut — well, maybe she won’t after reading more about it, but she loves the science.

“Really getting involved in this program sort of sucks you into NASA and working in space-related fields,” said Kim Schultz, a junior from Genoa City, and another member of the team.

There’s another point about this Carthage team: It’s almost all women. There are seven, and there’s Steven Mathe, a sophomore from Wauconda, Ill., who is teased for being the group’s token male and, among all these physics and engineering women, the token chemist.

The sex composition of the team caught Werlink’s notice. He received experiment proposals from four colleges, among them Madison and Carthage.

“And I got interested in this one because there were a lot of women in this one,” he said. “I didn’t pick them because they were girls; they had the best proposal, too.”

The experiment is very ambitious, he said, because the Carthage team also will transfer fluid from a reservoir tank to the main tank while the plane is airborne. His idea for measuring fuel quantity is intended for use in the future when an orbiting space station fuels a ship for travel to the moon or Mars. Present use is important, too; because there is no way to measure remaining fuel, spaceships now must lift 5, 10 or 15 percent extra fuel as a reserve.

Everyone is benefiting from this. Werlink gets to test a completely experimental idea at low cost. The students, who must pay their own costs for 10 days in Houston, will have credit on any published research findings, and they gain the hands-on experience necessary to truly understand problems. They get something else: the chance to make a lasting contribution on coast shore of the final frontier.


The Journal Times has arranged for coverage of the Carthage students’ trip through Elizabeth Young of the Carthage Office of College Relations. Follow the trip at:

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