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Houston, We Have a Solution: Aggies Explore Heat Management in Space

Thursday, Jul. 01, 2010

USU student team on board NASA’s microgravity aircraft

Aboard NASA's microgravity aircraft, USU students Frank McCown, center, and Justin Koeln, right, float in zero gravity as they perform a nucleate boiling experiment. Their findings could benefit long-duration space travel. Photo courtesy of NASA.

USU group hold a sign

USU GAS Team members hoist a 'We Puked for Science' sign as they celebrate a successful experiment aboard NASA’s ‘Vomit Comet.’ Nine USU students participated in NASA Microgravity University June 16-27 at Houston’s Johnson Space Center.

Members of Utah State University’s Get Away Special “GAS” student team burst into an exuberant chorus of shouts, oohs and aahs as they viewed video of their painstakingly constructed nucleate boiling experiment successfully performing in zero gravity. Their findings contribute to thermal management knowledge that could benefit the development of space vehicles for long-duration travel.
Gathered around a laptop in a sweltering hangar June 23 at Houston’s Ellington Field, the Aggies watched a tiny platinum wire in a clear, water-filled container light up with bubbles that, sans gravity, dispersed not up but in random directions. The footage had been captured minutes before during microgravity flight aboard a specially modified, NASA-contracted 727, one of the agency’s infamous ‘Vomit Comets.’
Still dizzy from a roller coaster ride of steep climbs and free falls from 32,000 feet, team member Frank McCown marveled at the results.
“The flight was awesome, the experiment went well and I’m really excited that we got good, usable data,” said the undergraduate computer science researcher.
The students’ celebration was the culmination of more than a year of steady toil, including late nights and weekends, leading up to a week and a half of intensive flight training at Johnson Space Center. The team of nine — McCown and fellow flyers Andrew Fassmann, Justin Koeln, Travyn Mapes and Troy Munro, along with ground crew members Phillip Anderson, Stephanie Peterson, Rob Barnett and Cameron Peterson —was among 14 university teams that ventured to Houston June 16-27 after being awarded a coveted spot with NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program, also known as “Microgravity University.” 
“It felt pretty darn good to see that data and know that our experiment had worked,” said Anderson, a graduate student in aerospace engineering and coordinator of USU’s GAS team. “All of our hard work in getting to Houston was not in vain.”
Anderson had his doubts. On the previous day, USU’s first team of flyers encountered a vexing electrical problem with the experiment’s interface to the aircraft that caused their project to grind to a stubborn halt.
“We had a few good runs in a row and the power died soon after,” said Fassmann, an undergraduate researcher majoring in mechanical and aerospace engineering. “Because the power died, we lost all our camera data.”
While struggling with the power, Fassmann and teammate Troy Munro scrambled to retrieve several of the experiment’s fluid chambers that accidentally ‘escaped’ in zero gravity, while coping with the effects of repeated, brain and gut-rattling shifts from hypergravity to weightlessness.
The two recounted the experience with laughter, though Munro admitted that trying to throw up in a bag in zero gravity was “not a fun experience.”
“Zero-g is the strangest sensation,” he said. “It's really very difficult to describe and hard to believe that you can’t tell which way is up.”
NASA’s microgravity aircraft, which the agency prefers to refer to as “Weightless Wonders” rather than their better known monikers, follow an elliptic flight path relative to the center of the Earth that literally propels the planes and their occupants into orbit. In a series of parabolas, pilots gun the engines into 45-degree climbs and, at the top of each arc, reduce thrust, point the nose down and fall.
During each climb, passengers, instructed to lie on the floor of the plane or sit leaning against the cabin’s walls, experience hypergravity, more than twice their body weight. As the plane reaches the top of the arc, passengers begin to float in mid-air, which lasts about 25 seconds. With a shout of “Coming out – feet down!” from a NASA flight coordinator, passengers resume their hypergravity positions and await the next parabola.
On separate two-hour flights over the Gulf of Mexico, two Aggie teams each experienced 30 zero-g parabolas, one lunar-g parabola and one Mars-g parabola. 
USU’s experiment, called “Follow-up Nucleate Boiling On-flight Experiment” or 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 the boiling dynamics of water in microgravity.
“We analyzed data from the initial experiment and determined that more research is needed,” said Koeln, 2010 USU Goldwater Scholar and FUNBOE leader. “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.”
Koeln and his teammates agree that providing robust, efficient and reliable thermal management for space exploration vehicles and instruments is essential for ambitious plans to travel to Mars and beyond.
“Our video from the on-flight experiment shows that the bubbles dispersed and didn’t stay on the wire getting hotter and hotter,” he said. “That’s significant. It indicates how water boils without buoyancy which could be revolutionary to manned space programs, satellites and deep space probes.”
From here, the USU students will further analyze the experiment’s data, draft a report for NASA and prepare varied research papers and posters from their experience. In addition, the team plans to submit a proposal for a revised experiment for next year’s Microgravity University. The team will also continue its busy schedule of outreach presentations to K-12 students.
“We learned a lot from this experience and we’re excited to share it with the scientific community,” Koeln said. “We got great data that no one else has ever gotten before.”
To learn more about the Aggies’ adventure and view additional photos and video footage, visit the team’s Facebook page, “USU Get Away Special Team,” and the team website.
Related links:
Contact: Phillip Anderson, 801-851-0069,
Contact: Troy Munro,
Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

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