Philly students to go weightless on NASA plane

    NASA’s final shuttle mission launched last week, but the agency’s other programs are still spurring innovation. Students from Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania are in Houston this week running experiments in low gravity on a NASA training plane.

    NASA’s Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program sends students on a plane that creates low-gravity conditions by quickly and repeatedly flying in parabolic curves. During freefall, students experience will get to feel what it is like to be weightless.

    After psychological training to get their bodies used to 2G force and low gravity, engineering students from Drexel will test a component of a satellite they are building to capture images of the aurora borealis.

    Second-year mechanical engineering student Matthew D’Arcy said the trip on what has been dubbed the “vomit comet” represents a full-circle journey for him.

    “The reason I got involved in science and technology (is) my  high school teacher, he used to show a lot of videos and stuff about NASA and he showed the vomit comet all the time,” D’Arcy said. “It’s kind of interesting that I’m going to be going on it.”

    The students will be weightless for only about 25 seconds at a time, so they will not be able to record observations in the air. Cameras will be trained on the machinery they are testing and they will analyze photos after the flight to come up with their data.

    A team from the University of Pennsylvania will be studying the properties of sand in low-gravity conditions. Douglas Durian is a physics professor and adviser of the team. His students will be testing a theory about how sand acts in space: he hypothesizes that even though a ball dropped into a bucket of sand will fall more slowly in low-gravity, it will penetrate to the same depth in the bucket as it would on Earth because the sand particles will be less tightly bound together by gravity — more like a liquid than a solid.

    “We have have a hint that that’s what might happen,” Durian said, “and my idea was the team of undergraduates could test that using low gravity conditions.”

    Durian said the experiment will help scientists better understand granular materials,  which sometimes act like liquids and sometimes act like solids.

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