Students gear up for an out-of-this-world research adventure
By David Bomar, Class of 1993 (as seen in the Spring 2011 issue of The Messenger).
A team of NNU students will conduct space-age research at 32,000 feet onboard NASA’s famous zero-gravity plane, also known as the “Vomit Comet,” in early April. The group’s research project was one of only nine selected by NASA for its Systems Engineering Educational Discovery (SEED) program — part of the space agency’s Microgravity University.
“This is an incredible opportunity for our students and faculty,” said Dr. Dan Lawrence, chair of engineering and physics at NNU.
He and Dr. Stephen Parke will accompany the team to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, March 31 to April 9.
The students are working with an engineer at National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) who is seeking new ways to build more water-efficient plumbing systems for future space missions. Their specific task is to explore how water interacts with a high-tech material recently developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
In normal gravity, water dropped onto this superhydrophobic (extremely water repellent) material “literally acts like a rubber ball, hitting the surface and rolling off,” said team member Jordan Hush (Boise, Idaho).
But the material has never been tested in zero-gravity (0G) or double-gravity (2G) environments. That is where NNU’s research comes in.
After orientation and training, and a healthy dose of NASA’s specially concocted motion-sickness medicine, the students are expected to fly two research flights over two days.
High above the Gulf of Mexico, the “Vomit Comet” — basically a 727 aircraft outfitted with a science lab — effectively performs maneuvers that create a reduced-gravity environment similar to the weightlessness of an official space mission. NASA researchers use this opportunity to test the hardware, components and procedures that astronauts will use when they travel into space. A typical research flight on the “Vomit Comet” lasts about one hour and 40 minutes as the plane climbs and descends 30 times like a giant rollercoaster in the sky.
Each time the plane “noses over” at about 32,000 feet, the NNU students will experience a cycle of roughly 30 seconds of zero gravity. Then, as the plane dives to 24,000 feet and climbs again, they'll feel about 30 seconds of hypergravity (1.8G-2G). Each complete ascend-descend cycle takes about two minutes.
As the gravitational forces fluctuate, the team will shoot droplets of water onto various surfaces — including the Oak Ridge material — to observe how each surface resists the liquid, said team leader Weston Patrick (Wasilla, Alaska).
Captured on slow-motion video, the NNU team’s results will provide the first opportunity for scientists to see whether the Oak Ridge material retains its super-water-repellent effect in zero gravity.
“We really don’t know what’s going to happen,” Weston said, although their work with the material at NNU has given them a few ideas.
If water responds to the Oak Ridge material much like it does on Earth, the material would show promise as a pipe coating that could conserve water aboard the space station, explained team member Kevin Halle (Edmonds, Wash.).
Performing high-tech science experiments in such stomach-churning conditions will be a challenge, but team member Chad Larson (Medford, Ore.) isn’t too concerned about the motion sickness. “They have doctors up there; we’re good,” he said.
NASA chose 23 groups to participate in its 2011 Microgravity University program; nine of those were selected to work alongside NASA scientists in the SEED program. The open-application process attracts strong competition from universities around the country. Other schools represented include Yale University, Dartmouth College, University of Washington and California Polytechnic State University.
Since learning of its selection in early December, the NNU research team has been busy preparing and building the apparatus that will be used to conduct the experiments.
“We have a ridiculous amount of work to do,” Weston said.
In addition to Weston, Kevin, Jordan and Chad, NNU’s team— nicknamed “Team Super-Hydro”— includes Jesse Baggenstos (Renton, Wash.) and Grady Turner (Nampa, Idaho).
With the exception of Chad, a physics major, all of the team members are studying engineering physics, a program with a 60-year history at NNU. Alumni holding this degree serve as engineering managers, researchers, entrepreneurs, professors and even a former space shuttle astronaut, Dr. Rick Hieb, who flew on three missions in the early 1990s.
Last August, NNU expanded its academic offerings to include electrical and mechanical engineering. The opportunity to perform research with NASA is the kind of recognition that should help put those new programs on the map, Chad said.
Housed on the first floor of the Thomas Family Health & Science Center, NNU’s new engineering program is unique in that it includes a senior design team project focused on compassionate Christian ministry to needy regions of the third world. Engineering is an especially attractive career choice for service-minded youth who aspire to combine a highly technical career with compassionate and humanitarian service.
“If we do a good job, it’s more likely that [NASA] will accept NNU again,” Chad added.
Faculty mentor Dr. Parke said, “I am so proud of our engineering students! This is only the beginning of great things to come.”