HOUSTON - Designing groundbreaking experiments and being accepted into an elite program alone would have most students floating on air. But after working for months to perfect their ideas, two teams of University of Arizona students are at NASA's Johnson Space Center this week to literally get things off the ground.
After almost six months of preparation, the students will complete microgravity flights with their experiments this week in Houston, with the first flight today.
The flights come as part of the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program's "Grant Us Space" week, specifically for students of schools associated with the NASA Space Grant program. The program is a national network of colleges and universities with a goal to sustain and improve science and engineering education. Teams in the Reduced Gravity program propose, design, build and test reduced-gravity experiments.
The UA teams are among 14 undergraduate groups participating this year, selected out of almost 80 proposals submitted nationally, said Douglas Goforth, program manager.
One team, from the UA chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, called its project ANGEL, an acronym for ANalysis of the Gravitational Effects of Liquid lenses. Its members - Sean Gellenbeck, Sara Meschberger, Nathan Mogk, Kevin Newman and Kyle Stephens - will test a liquid lens in microgravity conditions.
A simple example of a liquid lens is something often seen in Arizona: a droplet of water from condensation on a cold glass. You may have noticed that anything under the droplet is magnified.
Theoretically, liquid on its own creates a perfect sphere for a lens in zero-gravity conditions, the team said. However, gravity on Earth interferes with the lens, causing surface deformation and destroying its image quality.
The team's experiment may have implications for space optics. Liquid lenses have been considered for items such as remote-sensing satellites that take pictures of the Earth from space, Stephens said.
Liquid lenses already have been used in items such as eyeglasses, Newman said. While a standard glass lens can't change its shape, altering the amount of water within a liquid lens's casing will change its focal length.
"There are glasses that utilize the variable focus features of liquid lenses, though they're different than the ones we're using," he said. "At one time they were being tested on the International Space Station."
The team's lens is encased in a 1-inch cube with a half-inch aperture - the opening that light travels through.
The second UA team will examine the effects of rapidly changing gravity on the production of amino acids from inorganic gases.
After several briefings at Houston's Ellington Field and a final project check by an expert panel, the groups each will be split. Half the members from each team will take an initial flight on NASA's "Weightless Wonder" - the name given by NASA to the 727 aircraft used in the simulation - to test their experiment and collect data. Another flight will follow with the remaining members to retest the experiments after making any necessary changes. The teams will then evaluate and discuss the data.
The ANGEL team will fly today and Wednesday, while the other UA team will go up Thursday and Friday.
While the teams didn't get to participate in real astronaut training such as the hyperbaric chamber, members have prepared by completing safety briefings and physiology lectures. Students were trained on issues they might experience in flight, such as hypoxia, hyperventilation and, of course, motion sickness - which can afflict new fliers and astronauts alike.
"Your brain will try to match up what you're seeing and what you're feeling," Goforth said of the nausea some may feel while floating about in the aircraft. He noted the "Weightless Wonder" has been sometimes unfairly dubbed "the Vomit Comet," explaining most novice fliers won't get sick. Still, fliers will be medicated by a flight surgeon before the flight to decrease the possibility.
Team members have completed plenty of preparation for the trip, but some of their work also has been mental - especially thinking about what the flight will be like.
"I think it's going to be absolutely awesome, floating around and being able to breathe and hear while being neutrally buoyant," Gellenbeck said. "At the same time, thinking about what the plane is physically doing is a little scary - dropping 10,000 feet in 30 seconds, pretty much straight down. But I'm looking forward to it. Falling out of the sky will be fun."
While the chance to experience microgravity is the "carrot we dangle in front of the students," the benefits of the program go far beyond the flight, Goforth said.
"Having this opportunity on their résumés will be invaluable in the future," he said. "And it's not 'I got to go do a fun reduced-gravity flight.' It's, 'I was a researcher with NASA that went through this entire process and was selected across universities to carry out my research.' "
The months-long process wasn't just team members' working among themselves, either - members also are required to engage in outreach activities with younger students to encourage interest in space exploration. Team ANGEL visited Liberty High School in the Phoenix suburb of Peoria, where members gave a presentation on microgravity, talked about their upcoming project and the value of space studies.
"The goal is to interest them in space exploration for two reasons," team member Sara Meschberger said. "It's not only to attract and inspire future engineers, but also to inform the future voting public about why space exploration is important."
Victoria Blute was a NASA Space Grant intern at the Arizona Daily Star for the 2010-11 school year.