UAF students to go weightless on the 'vomit comet'

Posted: Thursday, March 13, 2008

FAIRBANKS - A group of undergraduates from the University of Alaska Fairbanks is preparing to go weightless.

The students are in the Alaska Microgravity Team and on one of 40 teams chosen to fly on NASA's reduced gravity aircraft, nicknamed the "vomit comet."

Team member Tess Caswell said this is the first team from Alaska to enter NASA's Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities program. Other universities represented include Yale, Cornell and Brown.

The Alaska team will be in Houston next month at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

While in Houston, the UAF team will get 15 minutes on the reduced gravity aircraft to conduct its experiment. The aircraft is a Boeing C-9 cargo plane that flies in a parabola over the Gulf of Mexico. When it comes over the top of a parabola and descends toward Earth, the plane experiences about 25 seconds of microgravity, better known as zero-G. The teammates who will be flying had to take a physical.

Caswell said the plane ride before and after the microgravity period is so turbulent she has been warned she will be using that time to hug the floor and try not to vomit.

"There is a wall of fame for flights where nobody threw up," she said.

The students are studying how to direct small satellites in space.

Caswell said small satellites are only 10 centimeters on each side, so there is no room for thrusters or any kind of rocket propulsion. With nothing in space for the satellites to push off against, the team is studying alternative methods for movement.

The team will be studying lesser-known propulsion systems, such as magnetic torque coils that react with the Earth's magnetic field when a current is passed through them and reaction wheels, which use the momentum of a disc rotating in one direction to rotate the satellite in the opposite direction.

"It's about accuracy and stability," said team member Devin Hahne.

Team adviser Denise Thorsen, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, said traditional satellites can take 10 years from planning to launch and cost around a million dollars.

Small satellites are typically cheaper, quicker to build and can adapt better to new technology when compared with larger satellites. Thorsen said on average, a small satellite costs less than $30,000 including development, equipment and the manpower needed for construction. Hahne said the cheapest satellite built by the UAF team costs $600. The bare-bones satellite only has one motor and uses recycled parts.

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