SEI students launch payloads on NASA's microgravity aircraft

July 11, 2008
| By: Aubrey Bloom

The SEI Materials Team completed a successful payload flight aboard NASA's DC-9 aircraft as part of the space agency's Microgravity University. The experiment, based on work by Dr. Xiaofeng Kang and Dr. Allison Ficht in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Medicine at Texas A&M University, aimed to evaluate the effects of gravity on a bilayer membrane that is an integral component of a bio-sensor able to detect single molecule analytes. The team submitted a proposal in Fall 2007 for the experiment, "Analyte Detection via Protein Nanopores in a Microgravity Environment," and was selected to pursue a flight experiment. In Fall 2007, the interdisciplinary student team worked with the Texas A&M researchers to understand the fundamentals of the sensor and design the flight payload. The team acquired industry donations from Molecular Devices and Warner Instruments worth $16,000 for all electronics hardware and software used in the flight payload. During the spring semester, the team completed the design and all documentation to meet NASA¿s safety requirements. During flight week, the team presented to NASA engineers their flight hardware for inspection and final safety review, and underwent training in preparation for flight. The flight testing took place June 12-13 with the payload experiencing four sets of eight zero-g parabolas. During the flight, the SEI students were able to form a bilayer and collect data on the voltage across the bilayer during each parabola. Ficht and her research group are analyzing the data to evaluate the effects of gravity on the bio-sensor. The SEI team included the following students: Seniors Daniel Grimes , computer science; Vanna Keller, ocean engineering; Katy Westhoff , aerospace engineering; Jahziel Chaviera, mechanical engineering; and Jennifer Kirchner, aerospace engineering; juniors Nikhil Bhatnagar, aerospace engineering; Brannon Veal, electrical engineering; and Christine Tipton, biomedical engineering. Erin Bishop, a graduate student in the Department of Aerospace Engineering, was the team¿s graduate mentor and the project manager. The team would like to thank Dr. Edmund Buck at Warner Instruments for donating all the electronics hardware for this flight experiment (BC-535 bilayer amplifier, Digidata 1440a, and Warner's BLM starter kit), a donation worth approximately $15,000. They also would like to thank Carvano Inc. for their donation of $1,000 to support flight expenses. The Space Engineering Institute is part of the Texas Engineering Experiment Station, the engineering research agency of the State of Texas and a member of The Texas A&M University System. For more information on the Space Engineering Institute visit http://sei.tamu.edu or e-mail the Director Magda Lagoudas at m-lagoudas@tamu.edu. For more information on NASA's Microgravity Program visit http://microgravityuniversity.jsc.nasa.gov.

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