NU Microgravity Team to Fly in NASA’s Weightless Wonder

It’s the closest to outer space that any regular civilian can get: the so-called Weightless Wonder (or Vomit Comet, depending on who you ask), NASA’s reduced gravity aircraft that performs parabolic maneuvers to simulate microgravity conditions.

This summer, as part of NASA’s Microgravity University competition, five Northwestern students will get a chance to not only ride in the C-9 plane, but perform their specially designed experiment, as well. The team, called the Northwestern University Microgravity Group, will fly in July.

“We’re pretty excited,” said Ethan Coffel (integrated science, physics, and computer science, ’13). “The program has given us the experience of the entire research process.”

The group began in spring 2010, when student Katie Jaycox (materials science and engineering and earth and planetary sciences, ‘13) recruited some Integrated Science Program students to create a proposal for the NASA program. But to fly on the aircraft meant designing a microgravity experiment, and it was difficult to create an experiment that was both relevant to space travel and quick enough to be performed in the flight’s time frame.

That time frame is miniscule: The aircraft flies 30 parabolic maneuvers over the Gulf of Mexico, which provides 30 seconds of hypergravity (about 1.8G-2G) as the plane climbs up and then 25 seconds of microgravity (0G) as the plane begins to descend toward Earth. At the very top and bottom of the parabola, flyers experience a mix of partial Gs between 0 and 1.8.

They spent most of spring quarter reading papers and talking with their adviser, Seth Lichter, professor of mechanical engineering. By the summer, they had settled on an idea that examines a common problem in space travel.

Electrolysis – the process of using a direct electric current to separate elements – is used in many applications in space transport, including life support and propulsion. It creates oxygen for astronauts, for example, by sending a current through water to separate out the oxygen. But the process ultimately creates bubbles on the device’s end cathodes, which hinders performance. In normal gravity conditions, those bubbles would rise. But in microgravity, they stay put. The team’s project creates a new surface shape that will (hopefully) lead those bubbles off the cathode.

“There is a record in this program of students’ projects not working on flight day,” said Matthew Nubbe (integrated science and physics, ’11). “So we made choices to simplify our project. We want this to work, and as soon as you board that plane with the experiment, there’s a lot of things that could go wrong.”

The team has tested their hypothesis with prototypes, and though they’ve had their share of setbacks (one saltwater solution cleaned the copper oxide off the surface and turned the water blue, so they couldn’t observe the bubbles), their experiment looks as though it should work in microgravity conditions.

Throughout the fall, the team also performed outreach projects –- a required part of the program -– that included presenting their idea at the Dearborn Observatory’s public viewing nights and mentoring several New Trier High School students on the process of research.

“We’ve been spreading the word about NASA research and its applications,” Coffel said.

The team plans to build their experiment apparatus in the Ford shop this spring and ship it to Houston before their July flight. They must fly down a week early for extensive flight training, because, after all, there is a reason it’s called the Vomit Comet.

“They say five out of six people get violently ill without medication,” Coffel said.

But the team’s not worried -– they’ve spent so much time on the project that two hours of sickness seems a minor price to pay.

“This project is a labor of love,” says Jenny Mills (integrated science, physics, and chemistry, ’13). “It was an incredible experience. If we had a problem, we had to figure out how to fix it. It’s like a puzzle, which is a lot of fun.”