Two teams of MAE students test experiments in reduced-gravity NASA plane

In News, Research & Innovation

Jenni Stone tried guessing what reduced gravity would feel like.  “I expected it to be like swimming without the water,” she said, “but it’s not like that at all.”  Feeling no physical support for the first time, Stone was in one of two UF teams to float in NASA’s “Weightless Wonder,” an aircraft that produces the feeling of weightlessness by flying in a parabolic pattern over the Gulf of Mexico.

Stone led a team of six Gator undergraduates, who boarded the plane and conducted experiments on July 14 and 15 as part of the “Grant Us Space” flight week, sponsored by NASA’s Microgravity University and the National Space Grant Consortium.  The project was Professor Jacob Chung’s idea, and he went on to organize the team and serve as a technical consultant.  In Houston, the participants first went through 12 days of physiological training, safety briefings and equipment instruction before they were allowed on the plane — the same training NASA employees go through.

The flights were a little less than two hours long and consisted of 34 periods of reduced gravity that lasted for about 17 seconds each. The conducted experiments went flawlessly, said John Abbitt, a faculty adviser.

Stone’s team characterized the heat transfer and boiling activity of cryogenic fuels that travel in the piping from fuel tanks to spacecrafts — a process necessary for long-range space missions. When fuel hits the pipes, it immediately starts to boil, which hinders the transfer. In order to understand the cool-down process of the liquid, the students had to study the phenomenon in a reduced-gravity environment to account for space-like conditions.

They took video of the microgravity flow patterns using a high-speed camera and gathered data on the maximum wall heat flux both in gravity and reduced gravity. Stone had to really focus on the experiment while the sensation of floating in the aircraft distracted her. She’d heard that people’s first experiences with reduced gravity involved laughing or screaming. She belonged in the former category and found herself involuntarily giggling like a child.

Jennifer Traylor, a junior aerospace engineering major, was a member of the other UF team that performed experiments on the plane earlier in the summer. She said the reduced gravity environment was a once in a lifetime feeling.  “It’s almost indescribable,” she said. “You could do whatever you wanted. You could pretend the floor was the ceiling and the ceiling was the floor and just have fun with it.”

Her team — the UF Small Satellite Design club — flew in the “Weightless Wonder” on June 10 and tested the full-access control of small satellites using control moment gyroscopes.  Having the ability to more adequately control small satellites would open a whole new field of possibilities for small satellite use in orbit, Traylor said, like being able to help with space debris mitigation.

The experiments performed adequately, but because of the unstable nature of the aircraft movement, it was hard not to get variations in data. Her team’s goal is to work on planning for this outside influence and applying to try the experiment out again next year.

Despite this, Traylor was glad to be part of the project.  “I loved it,” she said. “I wish I could go again every summer.  In fact, I wish I could go every day. It’s just a lot of fun.”  Stone had a similar opinion and said the experience was unlike anything she could have ever imagined.  “I’m so thankful I was able to be involved in this project and that this opportunity presented itself at UF,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget the experiences I had out there.”