Flying free in microG

    Photo courtesy of the NASA Reduced Gravity Flight Program

    Late into the afternoon, students still dot the front room of the Integrated Science Program house on Noyes Street. Staring intently at a screen or discussing the numbers and lines scrawled across the chalkboard, their work seems common, what would be expected from any academic building on campus. But last year, a team of students used this small house for something pretty big: conducting microgravity research.

    “NASA has this competition that one of our members, Katie [Jaycox], found and sent around. I mean, it’s kind of a unique experience — you get to fly on the Weightless Wonder,” says Weinberg junior Ethan Coffel, a member of the five-person team Northwestern University Microgravity Group (NUMG).

    Neither Coffel nor Weinberg junior Jenny Mills, one of his teammates, had ever studied microgravity before. There was no Northwestern team that had participated in the competition before, so Coffel emailed some friends and got a team together. But the learning curve proved difficult.

    “It took a while,” Coffel says. “We were reading through [previous projects] that had been done and reading through other papers on somewhat current microgravity research just to try to figure out what was an active topic to look at.”

    The opportunity allows students to choose and design their own research topic, then test it out in microgravity. 

    “You normally have the experience of doing the research, but you don’t have the experience of choosing what to do, planning out how to do it,” Coffel says.

    The project started about a year and a half ago. It took time and research, but NUMG decided to tackle the problem of buoyancy in zero gravity — or rather, the lack thereof. With Earth’s gravity, bubbles in a liquid can float to the surface and pop, thanks to buoyancy. In space, however, bubbles will sit on the bottom surface. This becomes a problem because they will coat the surface of things like radiator pipes and heat will not flow through the surface as efficiently.

    “Also, our experiment used electrolysis, which is where you are generating your running current through the fluid and you’re generating bubbles on the surface of the electrodes,” Coffel says. “And so if the surface becomes coated with bubbles, the electrolysis slows down.”

    “And eventually stops,” Mills says. “Other people in the past — this is a big problem — have looked at mechanical means of just sweeping bubbles off the surface or trying to shoot bubbles off to recover efficiency.”

    But the NUMG project looked at the cathode geometry. In other words, the properties of the solid surface that could encourage bubbles to release from the surface in a buoyancy-absent environment.

    They are still crunching the numbers from the experiment, but the real magic happened for 20 seconds at a time.

    NUMG was one of several teams from schools across the country chosen, to travel to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas this summer. They got to participate in a flight week, part of NASA’s Microgravity University program. This was the culminating event for their microgravity research. 

    In order to test their experiment in microgravity, they went up into the Weightless Wonder, or Vomit Comet, depending on whom you talk to.

    “It feels like you jumped off a high dive, that first moment when you’re falling,” Coffel says about the experience. “And it’s very strange to just float off the ground.”

    The walls are padded, and professionals in blue suits are on hand to turn those who are head over heels right side up. It’s not uncommon for people to begin to float upside down, and with only 20 seconds of microgravity at a time, it could get dangerous.

    “You have to realize and be aware of the fact that it’s 20 seconds and then it’s 2 Gs. Not only do you fall on the floor, but you’re like bam on the floor,” Mills says.

    The rig, which Mills calls “a little tank,” worked fairly autonomously when they were in the air. It weighs about 200 pounds and measures about 3 feet by 2 feet, in a steel frame. It had to be a pretty solid piece of equipment, contained with polycarbonate boxes to ensure that it could survive a crash (about 9 Gs). The equipment was mostly constructed in the Ford building, with a little help from some engineers. Though, after all the work they’ve done, Mills feels as though she might just deserve an honorary engineering degree.

    For Mills’ and Coffel’s senior year, they want to see the group expand.

    “It’s the usual undergrad research experience on steroids,” Mills says. “You think you have critical thinking before — you’re solving your own little problems. There’s nothing like when something goes wrong.”

    But this year, the team is going to take a break and analyze their data from the flight. It is what Mills calls a labor of love, and in the end, “it’s all worth it.”


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