Two Lamar University student teams will soon fly experiments aboard NASA’s reduced-gravity aircraft as part of the space agency’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program. The two become the 10th and 11th Lamar University teams to fly since the program began in 1995.

The students will travel to NASA Johnson Space Center’s Ellington Field in Houston to conduct their micro-gravity experiments aboard the agency’s “Weightless Wonder” aircraft. The first team will fly their experiment June 12-13, and the second team will fly June 26-27.

Each year, the Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program gives undergraduate students the opportunity to propose, build and fly a reduced-gravity experiment. The teams will perform the experiments aboard NASA’s C-9 aircraft, which mimics micro-gravity for 25 to 30 seconds at a time by executing a series of 32 parabolas – a steep climb followed by a rapid descent – over the Gulf of Mexico.

Lamar University’s opportunity to participate is the result of the hard work and commitment of the students who put many hours into researching and building their experiments, said Jim Jordan, chair of the Department of Earth and Space Sciences at Lamar. Jordan holds a Ph.D. in geology from Rice University.

“When I brag about our students at NASA, I say they have a calculus book in one hand and a wrench in the other. That’s the way I like to think about our students. They are hard working and they come from a background that has a strong work ethic,” Jordan said.

The first team to fly is led by Tiffany Smith of Mauriceville. Smith graduated from Lamar in May with a degree in mechanical engineering. The team will perform a study of “Vibrational Damping Effects of Grass-Like Crops in a Microgravity Environment.” As mankind explores the possibility of extended durations in space for manned spacecraft missions, two essential requirements are evident. The first one is the suppression of low-frequency space vehicle structural vibration, and the second is the sustainable production of the clean air, water and food needed by the crew.

“The hypothesis is that a crop-based life support system would suppress low-frequency structural vibrations, and, simultaneously, the vibrations would enhance crop growth in microgravity,” said Jiang “Jenny” Zhou, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and faculty advisor to the team.

Joining Smith in the project are May graduates Jordan Addison of Port Neches, mechanical engineering; Gary Decaney of Sour Lake, mechanical engineering and physics; and Corey Wyble of Port Neches, mechanical engineering. Also on the team is Jonathan Sterling a senior mechanical engineering and physics major from Sour Lake.

The student project will evaluate the energy dissipation of the selected grass-like crops in a microgravity environment. The experiment of dynamic structural frequency response will be performed on a grass-like crop colony. Energy dissipation and the damping loss factor will be measured to show that grass-like crops allow the colony

to dissipate substantial amounts of energy, over a frequency band centered at 0.1 to 4 Hz.

The research is supported in part by a New Investigator’s Program grant from the Texas Space Grant Consortium and was also the team’s capstone project for Zhou’s senior design class.

In the second project selected to fly, students will determine whether the geometry of a meniscus — the curve in the surface of a liquid that is produced in response to the surface of the container or another object — can be controlled in reduced gravity to form a variable focus reflective surface. The concept is the brainchild of junior physics
major Michael Hennigan of Beaumont.

“On Earth the surface of a liquid is flat,” Hennigan said. “However, in reduced gravity a liquid surface can become curved due to capillary action. By fixing the contact point of the liquid surface to a container and controlling the volume of liquid the amount of curvature can be controlled. This technique may be used to produce a liquid space telescope.”

In the experiment, a sealed cylindrical container will provide a boundary that will stop the capillary rise of water contained in the cylindrical container. Then, by altering the volume of water in the container, the curvature of the meniscus may be varied. Camcorders will record images so that the various curvatures of the meniscus during reduced gravity can be plotted and mapped. This technique of producing a reduced-gravity, variable-focus reflective surface may have space-science applications such as use in a liquid space telescope.

Joining Hennigan on the team are Joel Toutloff, a senior physics major from Fannett; Jonah Cherry, a senior mechanical engineering and mathematics major from Buna; Michael Mills, a senior business major from Bevil Oaks; and William Sanderson, a freshman electrical engineering major from Nederland.

All the team members have been instrumental in developing the experiment proposal, a lengthy and detailed analysis required by NASA, as well as in building the experiment itself and the safety cage that will contain it when it is on the aircraft.

The marketing zeal of business student Michael Mills spills over into everything he does, from promoting space science programs across the campus to pitching in on microgravity teams as he pursues his minor in space science.

“I want to spread the word, get more people to join so that space science can become a major,” Mills said.

“The current technology for telescopes is reaching its upper limits so a new type of technology will be necessary to push the boundaries further,” Hennigan said.

“So far the results seem to indicate that it is possible,” he said. “Hopefully this experiment will provide further confirmation that you can control the geometry in this way and if this is successful we’ll apply for grants to continue the research.”

“It just goes to show that if you get involved in science you never know what you may uncover,” Hennigan said.