Weightless Wonders: Students Perform Experiments in NASA’s Zero-Gravity Simulator

This summer, a team of four Northwestern students got the chance to conduct experiments like they were in outer space without ever leaving Earth’s atmosphere by flying in NASA’s famous “Weightless Wonder.” The undergraduate group, assisted by David Dunand, the James N. and Margie M. Krebs Professor of Materials Science, and the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern, hopes their experiments, if successful, could lead to better solar cell production for greener power on Earth and, eventually, in Earth’s orbit and beyond. Kristen Scotti, a School of Professional Studies biology major, led the group. She recounts her long journey to microgravity flight.

“Float like an astronaut and fly like a superhero” is the tagline used by Zero G Corporation to describe the experience of parabolic flight.

I might add, “Fall like a meteorite hitting Earth,” somewhere in between floating and flying.

A microgravity flight consists of a series of parabolic maneuvers or flying in a trajectory shaped like a parabola. Each begins with 20 seconds of hypergravity, followed by approximately 25 seconds of microgravity. It ends with an additional period of hypergravity.

The final hypergravity portion is immediate. In an instant, you go from floating in the air to slamming into the floor at a rate of about 17.64 m/s2. It only takes a few parabolas before you learn to prepare yourself for the fall.

My journey goes back to 2011, when I was attending classes at William Rainey Harper College and was selected as a NASA Aerospace Scholar, earning an internship at Marshall Space Flight Center. My first NASA flight was a year later.

Visiting Marshall was one of those life-changing moments, where once you get a taste for something, there’s no going back. I was surrounded with like-minded students and NASA personnel who were motivated purely by their desire to learn.

Some of the other Aerospace Scholars and I decided to form a team and propose an experiment to NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Program. Surprisingly, our proposal was accepted. We began our experimental flight preparations. This was my first experience managing a research team.

It was then I transferred to Northwestern University with the assistance of a Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship. Once at NU, I reached out to Dr. David Dunand and Dr. Bryce Tappan (Los Alamos National Laboratory) for guidance.

A few months later, a mentor at NASA advised me of an opportunity to propose a program to NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. I reached out to Dr. Dunand and Dr. Tappan again, and with their agreement to continue to offer guidance, I felt confident enough to give it a shot.

I compiled a team of NU undergraduate students, and we submitted our proposal to create titania foams as electrode materials for dye-sensitized solar cells in microgravity. Nearly a year later, our proposal was accepted by NASA as both a knowledge and a technological advancement payload.

In other words, our experiment served two purposes: to understand the effects of gravity during metal foam formation and to enhance the material properties for maximum efficiency in dye-sensitized solar cell applications.

This past July in Ellington, my experimental preparation felt very different. I had a bit more experience, so I knew what to expect; I felt I’d be better able to prepare myself for the falls.

Our team integrated students from three schools within Northwestern: Kimberly Clinch (McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science), Emily Northard (McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science), Felicia Teller (School of Professional Studies) and myself. As a team, we armed ourselves with knowledge as we immersed ourselves in literature, bounced ideas off of each other, solved problems and genuinely respected one another for our individual strengths.

When we hit a trough, we worked together to soften the fall.

Visiting NASA has always provided me with new vigor and desire to learn. NASA is the epitome of passion, commitment and the joining efforts of individuals in the pursuit of knowledge. Our team flew four flights in July; I was on three of them.

I left Houston feeling very proud of the team that I was a part of and excited to continue working with them over the next year analyzing our samples and incorporating them to improve overall efficiencies.

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