The right stuff: Fairfield University students headed to NASA's Johnson Space Center to conduct experiment in space


Four Fairfield University physics majors have been selected by NASA to go to the Johnson Space Center in Houston this month to conduct an experiment on a specially-equipped DC-9 airplane that achieves the sensation of weightlessness inside the cabin after it takes off. This is the first time that Fairfield University has applied and received a grant of this nature.

The Fairfield University Microgravity Team, as the physics students are known, is one of 34 grant recipients who will take part in the highly competitive Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program, alongside students from such schools as Brown, Yale, Cornell and Smith. Called Microgravity University, the program asks students to propose and design an experiment of their own choice that requires or uses a novel application of microgravity. Microgravity is a condition where there is very little gravitational force, such as free fall, orbiting the earth. The students' mission culminates in late March with a flight onboard NASA's DC-9 reduced gravity aircraft out of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where the students will work in microgravity to complete their experiments, much like astronauts do while in orbit, according to NASA.

The team will break up into two groups and take separate flights over the Gulf of Mexico. There, they will conduct the experiment using an apparatus that they will build here in Fairfield, which is essentially a moving vacuum chamber that will be mounted to the floor of the nearly empty, padded fuselage. According to NASA's Debbie Nguyen, the "Weightless Wonder," the plane the students will fly aboard, is a modified McDonnell Douglas DC-9 that conducts parabolic flights. The plane does a steep climb followed by an equally steep descent, producing about 18 to 25 seconds of weightlessness. Each team will have about 32 parabolas to run experiments

The students' experiment takes inspiration from a University of Chicago study. In that study, researchers had discovered that when atmospheric pressure is lowered enough, splashing from a droplet hitting a surface can be completely eliminated.

John Stupak, one of the Fairfield students on the team, noted, "Our experiment is original and has many practical applications, ranging from printing and surface coating to wing icing on airplanes. This experiment has never been performed with drops as large as we are investigating, and therefore will yield new scientific information."

Project leader Brendan Hermalyn, who just completed his bachelor's degree in physics last semester at Fairfield University and is now a mathematics graduate student here, said, "It is the closest thing anyone my age can come to being in space. Smaller liberal arts universities don't usually get this grant. It's usually reserved for the Ivy League or much larger research schools, so we are quite excited."

Dr. Orin L. Grossman, academic vice president, said, "Our students' research endeavors add significantly to their learning, and we are proud to say that many go on to graduate work in their respective fields of study. Our faculty is committed to faculty-student research that produces real science, in addition to giving students the experience and knowledge to be competitive for these special opportunities. These bright and hard-working students headed to NASA will undoubtedly be rewarded with the adventure of a lifetime."

The Fairfield team is also comprised of Jessica Kurose, a physics and computer science major, and Mike Zaffetti, a senior physics and computer engineering major. The faculty advisor is physics instructor Dr. Leslie Schaffer. The Physics Department is part of the College of Arts and Sciences. Zaffetti, of Wayland, Mass., called the trip "a very uncommon opportunity for students or anyone. In addition to the interesting science we plan to investigate, the novelty and excitement of free floating is greatly appealing." Stupak is a senior physics major from Northboro, Mass. "I am very excited about going to Houston. This is a once in a lifetime experience. Few people ever get to experience weightlessness."

According to NASA, the overall program experience includes scientific research, hands-on experimental design, test operations and educational/public outreach activities. For the Fairfield team, those outreach activities will begin in April and will include extensive work with Bridgeport Public School students through a partnership with The Discovery Museum in Bridgeport, Conn., and the local high schools in Fairfield, Fairfield Warde and Fairfield Ludlowe. Hermalyn, a Bronx native and Milford resident, said, "We hope to do presentations and demonstrations and in a way serve as an avenue for students to get interested and excited about science."

Connecticut businesses supported the student project by providing various components to build the vacuum chamber, including B.M.L. Tool & Mfg. Corp in Fairfield, Weinberger Vision Technology Corp., AutomationSolutions New England, LACO Technologies, and VACUUBRAND Inc. In addition, B.M.L. Tool & Mfg., a world-class machine shop, provided their facility in which the students constructed the chamber.

Aboard the plane, the Fairfield team will be conducting an experiment on the effects of atmospheric pressure of large droplet splashes on a dry rigid surface. The experiment has practical implications on helping to understand airplane wing icing, as well as helping with the operating of fuel injection systems and ink jet printers.

Zaffetti noted, "The real excitement is testing something that has never been tested before, and cannot be tested on Earth." The experiment is entitled, "Splashless in Space: The Impact Behavior of Large Droplets on a Rigid Surface in Low- Atmosphere, Low-Gravity Environments."

The Fairfield team's proposal reads: "We intend to investigate the physics of large scale liquid drop impact upon a smooth dry surface. As a drop of liquid impacts a smooth dry surface, a crown shaped splash emerges as the drop collapses. A rather surprising phenomenon, however, was discovered in 2005 (by Xu, Zhang and Nagel, University of Chicago); when the atmospheric pressure around the impact is decreased, the splash ceases to occur."

While previous ground based experiments have been limited in drop size due to the effects of gravity, the Fairfield students will use the microgravity environment onboard the DC-9 to scale the droplet sizes much larger than is possible in a ground-based lab. With many applications, ranging from printing, surface coating, and fuel injector design, to wing icing on airplanes, the students believe a robust knowledge of this phenomena would be a welcomed contribution to scientific and industrial communities. A high-speed camera will record the splashes. The Fairfield students also plan to videotape their adventure in space. Weather permitting; the students will fly sometime between March 22-31.

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Media Contact: Meg McCaffrey, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2726, mmccaffrey@fairfield.edu

Posted on March 15, 2007

Vol. 39, No. 142