Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010
A team of Utah State University student researchers is less than 160 days away from “the journey of a lifetime” as they ready an innovative heat transfer experiment — and themselves — for the rigors of zero-gravity flight aboard a NASA KC-135 microgravity research aircraft.
“This is about as close to space as you can get without being an astronaut,” says junior mechanical and aerospace engineering major Justin Koeln, team leader of FUNBOE or “Follow-Up Nucleate Boiling On-flight Experiment” for USU’s Get Away Special “GAS” team.
The Aggie researchers received word Dec. 9 that their proposal was among 14 student experiments selected for NASA's 2010 Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program, also known as “Microgravity University.” Six members of the team and an alternate flyer will travel to Houston’s Johnson Space Center June 17-26 to participate in the program and fly on the “Vomit Comet,” as the KC-135 is infamously known.
Koeln’s teammates, mostly undergraduates, include fellow MAE majors Phillip Anderson, Jeffrey Boulware, Andrew Fassmann and Troy Munro; physics majors Landry Heaton, Laura Mast, Stephanie Peterson and Sara Scott; electrical engineering majors Robert Barnett and Cody Smith; computer scientist Frank McCown and management information systems major Cameron Peterson. The team, advised by faculty mentors J.R. Dennison, physics professor, and MAE associate professor Heng Ban, is hard at work in a basement lab of the Science Engineering Research “SER” building constructing the experiment and completing a veritable mountain of NASA-required documentation.
“There are a lot of subsections that have to come together for the experiment to perform successfully,” says Anderson, a graduate student who serves as GAS team coordinator. “This will be a test of our organizational and time management skills as well as our academic and technical skills.”
FUNBOE builds on a previous USU GAS experiment flown aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour in 2001. Developed by USU’s then-GAS team and students from Utah’s Box Elder High School, the original experiment explored nucleate boiling dynamics in microgravity.
“We analyzed data from the initial experiment and determined that more research is needed,” Koeln says. “Nucleate boiling would be ideal for thermal management systems but its dynamics in microgravity are not well understood. If we can prove that boiling water in space is practical and safe, we’re on our way to developing more efficient energy systems for long-duration space travel.”
The students agree that providing robust, efficient and reliable thermal management for space exploration vehicles is essential for ambitious plans for travel to Mars and points beyond.
Onboard the KC-135, Aggie researchers, as they conduct their experiment, will experience weightlessness as the specially outfitted military transport jet dives from 30,000 to 20,000 feet in a series of controlled 25-second free falls. The Vomit Comet earns its moniker from its impact on passengers as they experience repeated shifts from minus-g to plus-g.
Here on Earth, the team is racking up an impressive trail of outreach appearances at local schools and science events. During the past few months, the Aggies have made presentations about their work, along with study opportunities at USU, to more than 1,000 K-12 students at USU’s Science Unwrapped programs, Salt Lake City’s Clark Planetarium, Utah’s Expanding Your Horizons conference that encourages middle and high school girls to pursue math and science, the Logan City Library and Cache Valley’s newly established StarHouse Discovery Center.
“Before our presentations, we ask the kids if they want to be scientists or engineers and we don’t get much of a response,” Koeln says. “But after we speak, we ask again and a lot of them enthusiastically raise their hands. It’s also a great opportunity to encourage kids to think about going to college.”
Organized in 1976, the USU Get Away Special team is largely responsible for one of the university’s well known achievements: Utah State has sent more student-built experiments into space than any other university in the world. Space scientist and former USU physics professor Gil Moore founded Utah State’s chapter of the NASA-initiated self-contained payload program — famously standing during a professional conference presentation and offering a personal check to cover the cost of USU’s first payload reservation as a NASA representative announced the new program. Moore continues to support USU’s efforts and is assisting the current GAS team in securing financial support for its June adventure.
In the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster, NASA discontinued the GAS program. The USU team began exploring other avenues to propel its experiments into space and changed its name to “Microgravity Research Team.” The students have since changed their minds about giving up the GAS name.
“We decided to reclaim our roots and the Get Away Special name,” Anderson says. “USU has a lot of flight heritage through the GAS program and, even though circumstances have changed, our goals remain the same. We’re building on the efforts of Aggies who’ve gone before us to continue to spark community interest in space research while pioneering ideas in inner- and outer-space exploration.”
To learn more about the GAS team’s experiment and view their progress as they prepare for their mission, visit the USU GAS Team Web site
Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517, firstname.lastname@example.org