Two CU-Boulder Student Teams To Test Devices In Zero Gravity Aboard NASA Jet

Published: March 1, 2000

Two University of Colorado at Boulder aerospace engineering undergraduate teams are now in Houston, readying to fly on NASA’s KC-135 aircraft from Johnson Space Flight Center to test the effects of zero gravity on experiments they designed.

One team, affiliated with CU’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, will test the effects of zero gravity on a part of a satellite instrument known as a grating drive that rotates to select particular wavelengths of sunlight for analysis. A second team, affiliated with the engineering college’s BioServe Space Technology Center, designed and built a system to pump liquid nutrients through porous tubes intended to support plant growth in a low-gravity environment.

The KC-135 performs about 30 parabolic curves on a typical flight, achieving about 25 seconds of weightlessness during each curve. As the students free-float in the jet cabin, they will monitor the effects of reduced gravity on their experiments.

Engineering undergraduates Bill Kalinowski, David Simmons and Alexi Rakow built the hydroponics nutrient delivery system called the Porous Tube Technology Development Experiment, or PTDD, to control the moisture level on the surface of a tube. Long-term plant growth systems like the PTTD device will be vital for manned space flight to Mars, said Simmons, the team leader.

"We're excited to be here," Simmons said. "It's been a long process, and we put in a lot of hard work to get this built and operating." Supervised by aerospace engineering Assistant Professor Alex Hoehn, also a BioServe engineer, the undergraduate trio will make one flight March 8 and another March 9.

The second student group, made up of engineering undergraduates Trent Yang, Nicole Troutman, Aaron Fromm and Jillian Redfern, developed their grating-drive experiment under the direction of LASP researcher Neil Duchane. They will determine effects of zero gravity on the grating drive, which is now flying on NASA’s Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite aboard LASP’s SOLSTICE instrument. SOLSTICE measures ultraviolet light variations from the sun and stars.

SOLSTICE also has been selected as one of four instruments to be packaged and flown on a NASA satellite designed and built by LASP, said Duchane. Known as the Solar Climate and Radiation Experiment, or SORCE, the new satellite will be launched in 2002 as part of the space agency’s Earth Sciences Initiative.

The LASP students will make their KC-135 flights on March 10 and March 11.

Both teams will analyze the data upon their return to Boulder and will attempt to publish their results in scientific journals. They also will visit local area K-12 schools to share their experiences and help elementary and middle school students perform space science experiments.

The KC-135 flights are part of NASA's 2000 Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program, funded by the space agency and administered by the Texas Space Grant Consortium. Forty-seven teams selected competitively from colleges and universities around the country will fly their experiments on the KC-135 -- nicknamed both "The Weightless Wonder" and "The Vomit Comet" -- from Feb. 28 through March 18.

During each two-hour flight over the Gulf of Mexico the students will work in the plane's 60-foot by 10-foot cargo area. The KC-135 is used to train astronauts, test hardware and experiments destined for spaceflight, and evaluate medical protocols that may be used in space.

Hoehn’s team also received funds from CU's Engineering Excellence Fund, the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, the Dean of Engineering's office, and the Aerospace Engineering Sciences Department, said Simmons. Simmons can be reached at the team’s hotel in Houston at (281) 286-2132, ext. 115, and student Trent Yang of Duchane’s LASP team can be reached by calling (281) 486-2542.