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Campus News
Your faculty and staff news since 1965
April 19, 2004
Volume 39, Number 14

Student Research
Outside the Box > > Engineering teams test zero gravity at Johnson Space Center

By Greg Johnston

Seniors Dan Casey and Tom Quirk were part of two UNM teams conducting experiemtns in zero gravity at the Johnson Space Center. Other members included seniors Thien Le Nguyen, Thomas Quirk, David Stone and junior Daniel Casey.

Students from the Department of Chemical and Nuclear Engineering slipped into flight suits and climbed onboard the “Weightless Wonder,” last month to conduct research in Zero Gravity. A team of UNM juniors and a team of UNM seniors took their “payloads,” to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for a weeklong adventure with micro-gravity. The trip represented the testing phase of research projects begun during the fall semester.

Sponsored by NASA, the program provides a rare academic experience for undergraduate students to successfully propose, design, fabricate, fly and evaluate a reduced gravity experiment of their choice.

Experiments were conducted aboard the KC-135, a jetliner that is used to train astronauts. The Boeing 707 has been retrofit with massive turbo engines and padded walls. As a result, the plane can experience near weightlessness in a free fall. To do so, the plane takes off and climbs to an altitude of 32,000 - 35,000 ft. and then can accelerate downward at the rate of gravity. It then goes into a climb to regain its lost altitude and dives and climbs, again and again. Each Zero Gravity cycle lasts 20 - 30 seconds.

Robert Busch, chemical and nuclear engineering professor, and faculty advisor for the project accompanied the students. Busch says we rely on gravity to make things like pumps and coffee pots work. In the absence of gravity, other factors come into play and everyday items do not behave the same.

Senior students researched The Effects of Gravity on Bubble Detachment Diameter Sub-Cooled Pool Nucleate Boiling. Then the team of juniors examined Upper Atmosphere Cosmic Gamma Ray Fields and Fluid Level Tank Measurements in Microgravity. Their study examined the ability to measure fluid levels in tanks using gamma ray radiation in a variety of gravities.

Junior flight team leader Daniel Sanchez said the experiment was a continuation of one he participated in last year. Sanchez and his team believed that their new research would help determine fluid levels in a weightless environment such as the space shuttle. Other team members were juniors Nick Brown, Eduardo Padilla, Ryan Kamm and sophomore Danielle Hensen.

“If you step on a scale, that determines your weight,” said Sanchez. “The same applies to drinking water, fuel, and any type of liquid that you can weigh and then know how much it is. Up in micro-gravity there is weightlessness, so how do you know how much fluid there is?”

For the experiment, 700 ml. of water was placed in a double container. A sodium iodide scintillation detector was placed below the container to determine the amount of gamma rays that would penetrate under normal conditions.Then the test was repeated in zero gravity conditions.

By comparing the non-attenuated to the attenuated results, the fluid amount could be determined.

“The bottom line is that if there is no gravity, you can still know the amount of fluid,” said Sanchez.