Texas A&M students to conduct zero-gravity research on NASA aircraft

February 9, 2004

COLLEGE STATION -- What goes up must come down, but Texas A&M University student Damaris Sarria knows that sometimes it may take a little longer to come down. That's what happens with NASA's Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program (RGSFOP), which provides college students with opportunities to design, test, fly and evaluate their experiments in a "weightless" atmosphere. Sarria leads a group of four teams from Texas A&M that have been chosen to run their experiments through the RGSFOP this spring. NASA has used a Boeing KC-135A aircraft since 1959 to simulate reduced-gravity or weightless environments for research and to train astronauts. The aircraft simulates zero-gravity conditions by flying a series of parabolic arcs over the Gulf of Mexico. Each maneuver provides about 25 seconds of zero-gravity conditions for the teams to run their experiments. The KC-135A is nicknamed "The Vomit Comet" because of its stomach-churning flight trajectory and the unfortunate tendency of its onboard passengers to lose their lunches. RGSFOP participants submit their proposals to NASA, and those teams selected must undergo physicals and training before they're allowed to fly. Each team is assigned a flight date and spend that week in Houston at NASA's Johnson Space Center undergoing safety and physiological training in preparation for the flights. Each team then flies twice, once each day for two days, to run its experiments. Sarria, a senior aerospace engineering major, said that the Texas A&M teams worked with faculty adviser Igor Carron, assistant director of the Spacecraft Technology Center in the Texas Engineering Experiment Station (TEES). Carron helped the groups choose their research topics, but then the students took over. Each team must design and build their projects, run the experiments, crunch the numbers, and report the results back to NASA. Sarria was part of a team that flew last year. She said the experiment she and her team are working on this year -- "Low-velocity collisions of particulate matter in microgravity: A fundamental study to better understand near-Earth objects" -- is a continuation of work started last year. "Last year's experiment provided some video benchmarks of how particulate clouds combine together," Sarria said. "This year, we're looking at more irregularly shaped objects, such as 16- or 20-sided dice. When an object like that hits a particulate cloud, how does the cloud deflect off that object? This could aid in the design of spacecraft or probes to keep the loose debris found on an asteroid's surface from interfering with the onboard camera or instruments as it lands on the asteroid." In addition to researchers, the students also must be teachers and fund-raisers. Each team must include an outreach or education plan in its proposals and raise the money to pay for the experiments and outreach efforts. Funds come from academic departments and other groups. "It's a lot of hard work, but it's worth it," Sarria said. "I want to be an astronaut, and I've been trying to motivate and encourage other students to participate in the KC-135 program." The four Texas A&M teams participating this year are: * "Low-velocity collisions of particulate matter in microgravity: A fundamental study to better understand near-Earth objects" -- Team leader Sarria; Ian Horbaczewski, sophomore electrical engineering major; Zach Reeder, senior aerospace engineering major; and Kyle Schroeder, senior aerospace engineering major. * "The effects in ocular movement in microgravity" -- Team leader Alicia Marie Rutledge, senior aerospace engineering major; Allison Barnard, freshman mechanical engineering major; Jesse Bowes, freshman computer science major; and Chelsey Dankenbring, freshman aerospace engineering major. * "Asteroid anchoring: Low-velocity solutions to study an asteroid's surface" -- Team leader Jeanna Copley, sophomore computer engineering major; Jerry Beasley, junior aerospace engineering major; Nyria Guevara, sophomore chemical engineering major; and Bradley Vermillion, senior electrical engineering major. * "Wind-sheared waves on thin films under microgravity" -- Team leader Grant J. Kemper, senior aerospace engineering major; Maria Liberto, freshman aerospace engineering major; Johnathan Russell, senior aerospace engineering major; and Joyce Varghese, sophomore electrical engineering major.

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