Two undergraduate student teams from the University of Arizona will conduct experiments in zero gravity this week as part of NASA's Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program. The teams are among 14 from universities across the nation whose projects were selected by NASA.
The highly competitive reduced gravity program was created in 1995 to give undergraduate students the opportunity to propose, design, build and test science experiments aboard NASA's zero-g aircraft. The UA is the only school this year to send two teams to fly with the reduced gravity program.
NASA created its reduced gravity program in 1959. Since then, the KC-135 zero-g aircraft has served as a flying laboratory for research in fluid physics, combustion, material science and life science and for astronaut training. The plane also was used to film weightless sequences for the motion picture "Apollo 13."
Reduced gravity, also known as microgravity or zero g, is about 1-millionth the force of gravity that we feel on Earth. It is not considered to be complete weightlessness because anything in the vicinity of a massive object like a planet is still minutely affected by the object's gravitational pull.
From Ellington airfield, the zero-g aircraft will fly a series of parabolic arcs over the Gulf of Mexico, fluctuating between about 24,000 and 16,000 feet above sea level. Once the plane turns downward from the top of its arc, passengers experience about 20-25 seconds of microgravity, or near-complete weightlessness, while in freefall over the Earth's surface.
The experience inside the zero-g aircraft is identical to what astronauts feel while in orbit because orbital bodies are also in freefall – but are moving at sufficient speed consistently to miss the planet.
The plane will complete 34 parabolic arcs, giving the passengers a total of more than 15 minutes of weightlessness before returning to Ellington airfield.
Every summer, selected teams travel to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston for orientation, physiological training and to prepare their payloads for flight. The students will have the chance to test their experiments twice, with half the team members flying with the payload one day and half the members flying the next day.
At Ellington airfield, teams are known by their school names: Florida, for the University of Florida at Gainsville, California for the University of California at San Diego, Colorado for the University of Colorado at Boulder.
The presence of two teams from the UA immediately generated some confusion – not aided by the fact that both teams' leaders are named Kyle – and necessitated the creation of individual team names. One of the UA teams, from the UA's Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, or SEDS, got its name from its project, called ANalysis of Gravitational Effects on Liquid lenses, or ANGEL.
"Susan Brew, who is the Space Grant coordinator at the UA, told me this program existed, and I told people it would be a good idea for us to write a proposal," said Kyle Stephens, who leads the ANGEL team.
The team will test optical lenses created by the interface of two different liquids. The team hopes to show that by varying the density of the liquids, the shape of the lenses may be altered subtly, thus allowing their focus to be changed. Since the mechanical components of glass lenses must be moved relative to each other to change their focus, using liquid lenses could present a simpler way to adjust the focus of lenses in space.
The UA's Roger Angel is the team's faculty advisor. "We should also thank the UA's LOFT group, especially Bob Parks and Margaret Dominguez," said Kevin Newman, a member of the ANGEL team.
Team ANGEL will fly its experiment on Tuesday and Wednesday this week. The team also is blogging about its experience.
The second UA team is known at Ellington airfield by the rather surprising name of the NASA Air Club for Men. "Our official name was really dumb," said Rine, team leader for the NASA Air Club, when asked about the origin of the team's name. "So we figured if we're going to have a dumb name we might as well have a really dumb one. It's not accurate," he added.
"But it is entertaining," said Alexandria Stanton, one of three female members of the team.
The team will replicate the famous Miller experiment, which was originally conducted in 1953 and demonstrated the formation of amino acids from gases in the Earth's early atmosphere that is believed to have led to the development of life on Earth. The experiment has never been done in zero gravity, and the team hopes to show that amino acids also can form in conditions of changing gravity, such as a comet or asteroid experiences while traveling through space.
If the team is able to demonstrate the formation of amino acids in microgravity, it would constitute a step toward verifying the hypothesis that life could form from organic products on a comet or asteroid in space.
The UA's John Pollard is the team's faculty advisor. Materials for the experiment were donated by the department of chemistry and the departments of physics and atmospheric sciences at the UA. "We had really generous support from Dr. Betterton's lab and Dr. Hall's lab at the UA," said Stanton. The NASA Air Club will fly its experiment on Thursday and Friday.
The UA teams are funded almost entirely by NASA's Reduced Gravity and Space Grant programs, and to a lesser extent by other sources. "Such as our parents," added Nathan Mogk, a member of the ANGEL team who with team member Sarah Meschberger drove 18 hours overnight from Tucson to Houston with their team's payload.
Team profile: ANGEL
- Kyle Stephens, 22, leads the ANGEL team. Stephens is a senior majoring in optical sciences and engineering and plans to get a master's degree in optics and work on space telescope systems or space optics.
- Sean Gellenbeck, 20, is a junior majoring in aerospace engineering. Gellenbeck plans to study astronautical engineering, or spaceship design, at graduate school.
- Sara Meschberger, 20, is a senior double majoring in communications and linguistics. Meschberger, who says her life revolves around space sciences, would like to work for a private space company or organization.
- Nathan Mogk, 21, is a senior double majoring in material science and engineering and mathematics. Mogk plans to obtain a master's degree in systems engineering and to design spacecraft.
- Kevin Newman, 23, recently graduated from the UA with a degree in optical sciences and engineering. Newman currently is program coordinator for the NASA Ames Academy for Space Exploration at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. The future? "Going to grad school," said Newman.
- Victoria Blute, 24, recently graduated from the UA with bachelor's degrees in journalism and French. Blute, who was NASA Space Grant intern at the Arizona Daily Star, is team journalist for the ANGEL team.
Team profile: The NASA Air Club for Men
- Kyle Rine, 26, is team leader for the NASA Air Club. Rine is a senior double majoring in mathematics and physics. Rine was a NASA Space Grant intern advisor this past year and also runs the atmospheric science laboratory at the UA.
- Michael Iuzzolino, 24, is a junior majoring in aerospace engineering and mathematics. Iuzzolino was a NASA Space Grant intern this past year doing high-altitude weather balloon research. Iuzzolino plans to work on nanotechnology research and space propulsion systems.
- Jana Pence, 21, is a junior majoring in physics. Pence was a NASA Space Grant intern this past year in the Betterton lab at the UA and plans to pursue a master's degree in atmospheric sciences.
- Alexandria Stanton, 18, is a senior at the UA majoring in chemistry. Stanton was a NASA Space Grant intern this past year in the Hall lab at the UA conducting research on polymer chemistry. She is interested in studying a combination of physical chemistry and polymer chemistry.
- Shelley Littin, 20, is a senior majoring in organismal biology. Littin is a NASA Space Grant intern in science writing at University Communications at the UA and is interested in pursuing biological research.
This feature is the first in a three-part series on UA students' involvement in zero-gravity experiments.