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Back to NASA: USU Students Headed Again to Microgravity University

Thursday, Jan. 13, 2011

USU students on NASA microgravity aircraft, 2010

Aboard NASA's microgravity aircraft, USU students Frank McCown, lower left, and Justin Koeln, center, perform a nucleate boiling experiment at 2010 Microgravity University. The GAS team returns to NASA in June. Photo courtesy of NASA.

USU students Andrew Fassmann and Troy Munro at 2010 Microgravity University

Veteran flyers Andrew Fassmann, left, and Troy Munro, ready to board the 'Vomit Comet' at NASA’s 2010 Microgravity University. The two USU students will present at Undergraduate Research Day on Capitol Hill Jan. 26, in Salt Lake City.

For the second year in a row, Utah State University student researchers will experience zero-gravity flight in a “chance of a lifetime” as they conduct an innovative heat transfer experiment of their own design aboard NASA’s ‘Vomit Comet.’

USU’s Get Away Special Team received word Dec. 8, 2010, that its proposal was among 14 submissions from throughout the nation selected for NASA’s 2011 Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program, also known as ‘Microgravity University.’

“Those of us who participated in last year’s experiment are very thrilled that our new proposal was selected,” says Troy Munro, an undergraduate researcher who flew on the Vomit Comet with the 2010 team last June. “With a new group of students ready to take on the project, everyone is very excited and eager to get ready.”

At least seven Aggies — five flyers, an alternate flyer and a ground crew member — will travel to Houston’s Johnson Space Center June 2-11 for more than a week of astronaut training that will culminate in microgravity flight aboard a specially modified Boeing 727.

USU’s proposed experiment, called “Follow-up Nucleate Boiling On-flight Experiment 2.0” or FUNBOE 2.0, builds on last year’s experiment and a previous GAS Team experiment that flew on Space Shuttle Endeavour in 2001.

“Long-standing theory predicts that as gravity goes to zero, so does your heat transfer,” says Justin Koeln, experiment team leader and veteran microgravity flyer. “But findings from our initial experiments challenge that theory.”

The FUNBOE experiments examine fundamental questions about boiling water and other liquids in space. FUNBOE 2.0 will also test a novel idea of cooling using boiling heat transfer on a micro-fabricated silicon chip.

“What the students are asking is ‘Can we use a heater to increase cooling?’” says GAS faculty mentor Heng Ban, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. “It sounds counterintuitive, but boiling takes away a lot of heat very quickly.”

Ban says the ability to control bubble generation and use boiling as a mechanism of heat transfer could have multiple applications, including thermal management solutions needed for long-term space travel to Mars and beyond. The students’ experiment, he says, contains a potentially patentable idea.

Aboard NASA’s microgravity aircraft, the Aggies will experience weightlessness as the plane follows a parabolic path and repeatedly dives from 32,000 feet in a series of about 32 controlled free falls. 

“It’s a weird feeling when you start to float toward the roof of the plane,” says Koeln, a 2010 Goldwater Scholar.

USU engineering alum Jim Elwell ’82, who was a member of the GAS team from 1977-81, says his participation in GAS team projects allowed him to gain “a lot of real-world experience as an undergraduate.”

“I would guess I was roughly two years ahead of my peers when I graduated from college,” says Elwell, who founded Salt Lake City-based QSI Corporation, a successful manufacturer of industrial human machine interface and mobile data terminals. “This allowed me to be much more productive much sooner when I got my first job as an engineer.”

Elwell, who sold QSI to Sweden-based Beijer Electronics, Inc. in November 2010, says he sees today’s GAS team members benefiting from similar opportunities.

“When I recently visited the GAS team and saw the experiment they flew on the Vomit Comet, I was very impressed,” he says. “The students are actually building stuff that has to work and they’re going through the inevitable trial-and-error involved in real-world engineering. That’s very important and valuable experience.”

Organized in 1976, the USU GAS 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. Former USU physics professor Gilbert “Gil” Moore, who helped to found the USU chapter and personally funded the group’s first space payload, says the program fosters hands-on student research on cutting-edge projects.

“The students do everything,” he says. “The experiments and innovations are student-driven.”

The USU community is invited to follow along on the GAS team’s adventure on Facebook and on the team website.

Related links:

Contact: Phillip Anderson (USU student), 801-851-0069,

Contact: Heng Ban (USU faculty mentor), 435-797-2098,

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

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