Fairfield Now - Summer 2007
Splashless in Space
With NASA officials looking on, Brendan Hermalyn '07 (right) and Mike Zaffetti '07 enjoy a few moments of weightlessness before the real science begins.
By Meg McCaffrey and Barbara D. Kiernan
Brendan Hermalyn '07, a physics and music double major currently pursuing his master's degree in mathematics at Fairfield, spent part of spring break unable to sense the difference between up and down. So, too, did current seniors Jessica Kurose, Mike Zafetti, and John Stupak.
No, they were not feeling the after-effects of the legendary spring break hi-jinks that some college students find so entertaining. And no, they were not dreaming. Rather, they were living out a dream reserved for the nation's top science students - at the Johnson Space Center in Texas.
Incredibly, the experiment they proposed, which could only be conducted and validated in a state of weightlessness, piqued the interest of NASA scientists responsible for selecting participants in the agency's 2007 "Microgravity University" program (formally called the Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program). Never before had Fairfield, a relatively small and unknown-to-NASA school, applied.
Looking with pride at the precisely calibrated device they have created are Frank Goodrich of B.M.L. Tool and Manufacturing (which provided assembly space and guidance) and Fairfield University's very own NASA Microgravity Team (l-r): John Stupak '07, Mike Zaffetti '07, Brendan Hermalyn '07, and Jessica Kurose '07.
"The program has traditionally been reserved for Ivy League schools and much larger research universities, so this was quite exciting," says Hermalyn, who spearheaded the project with the guidance of physics professor Dr. Leslie E. Schaffer.
While doing his own research last summer, Hermalyn came across a phenomenon that interested him, one first modeled by the University of Chicago in 2005. Its researchers had discovered that when the atmospheric pressure around an impact zone is lowered beneath a certain threshold level, liquid droplets (which under normal conditions splash when they hit a surface and form a crown-like shape), do not splash at all.
Hermalyn and his team proposed expanding the understanding of this phenomenon to include larger droplets, by using the microgravity environment produced onboard the DC-9 to form them. Just as eye drops can get only so big before their weight causes them to fall off the dropper, past experimenters, limited by gravity, were unable to make extremely large drops. By conducting the test in microgravity, where gravity does not pull the droplets off the needle, Fairfield's team would be able to make much larger droplets, and thus work with a regime not possible here on earth. The practical implications of this area of study range from aircraft wing icing to ink-jet printing.
The selection of Fairfield's proposal, one of 34 chosen, sent the team and their professor into high gear. First the students had to build - from the ground up - the chamber and internal mechanisms that would produce, regulate, measure, illuminate, and take high-speed photographs of water droplets, which in zero gravity could be scaled to a variety of sizes not possible on earth.
With the help of companies including B.M.L. Tool and Manufacturing, Weinberger Vision Technology, AutomationSolutions New England, LACO Technologies, and VACUUBRAND, the students and their professor began creating a multi-functional apparatus, complete with vacuum chamber. It included not a single piece of duct tape.
Fast-forward to March 2007.
Hermalyn and Zaffetti are strapped in the seats of an adapted DC-9, flat on their backs on the floor, as it takes off from Johnson Space Center's Ellington Field and heads out to the Gulf of Mexico. Countdown to zero gravity begins - an electronic sign flashing 1.8gs, 1.5gs, 1.0gs, .8gs, .6gs, .4gs, .2gs - toward a state that will create conditions of weightlessness in the jet known to students as "Weightless Wonder."
Bolted to the floor of a DC-9, Fairfield's experiment looks impressive indeed. Here, Brendan Hermalyn and Mike Zaffetti "stand tall"
with NASA mentor Tim Leimkuhler (left).
Much like astronauts who conduct experiments in space, Hermalyn and Zaffetti (as well as Kurose and Stupak, who will be on a subsequent flight) are eager to begin working on theirs. The twist? For a DC-9 aircraft to create zero gravity conditions, it must make a steep climb - followed by an equally steep descent, or free fall - during which it produces 22 seconds of weightlessness. The plane does 32 of these parabolas during each flight, which is all the time students have to conduct their experiments.
"When it reaches .1gs, your sense of down just vanishes," says Zaffetti. "Everyone's just floating." After the now-unbuckled students enjoy the fun of a few loops of weightlessness - up, down, and around - the real work begins.
The device created by the Fairfield team is bolted to the floor of the padded fuselage, which has been adapted to create an experimental space some 45 feet long. Onboard also are teams from Brown and West Virginia University. Cornell, Yale, Smith, and others will fly later.
"Our computer was just waiting for zero gravity," says Zaffetti, who wrote the software program for the fully automated experiment. "It was the only one on board that started itself." But the real excitement, he adds, "was testing something that has never been tested before, and cannot be tested on Earth."
Sensors on the team's apparatus were calibrated carefully, says Dr. Schaffer, so when the plane reached microgravity, the computer controlled the four automated subsystems of the experiment. As Hermalyn describes it, "A pump was turned on for 15 seconds to slowly and carefully form a large liquid drop at the end of an injector needle. The end of the injector needle sat inside a vacuum chamber, itself mounted to a linear drive. This linear drive then jerked the chamber into motion in such a fashion as to cause the drop to detach from the needle," effectively bringing the floor to hit the stationary object. Just before the surface was to make impact with the droplet, a high-speed camera automatically activated to record photos of the droplets to be carefully analyzed later. Dr. Schaffer's students came home with a terrific amount to analyze and will be producing a report for NASA.
To put it mildly, NASA is already impressed. "I was a little skeptical when I was first assigned to be Fairfield's NASA mentor for this project," said Dr. Tom Leimkuehler in a letter to University President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J. "To be honest, I had never heard of Fairfield University, and I was aware that Fairfield had never had a team participate in this program before. Additionally, the students had a rather ambitious experiment to build in only a few months before their flight. However, they got it built, shipped it to Houston on time, and passed the Test Readiness Review (TRR) with no major issues.
"During the first flight, the experiment appeared to function perfectly. After the flight, a timing issue with the high-speed camera was discovered, but the students were able to come up with a solution to fix the problem. For the second flight day, the entire experiment, including the timing of the camera, worked like a charm. Personally, I think their experiment was right up there with the best - good science and it worked!"
In reflecting on the NASA microgravity project, Dr. Timothy Law Snyder, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences (home to the Department of Physics), notes that it models the kind of collaboration between faculty and students that allows students to learn through discovery. In this case, that discovery came at warp speed. "The students' design and execution of their experiment, under the guidance of Professor Les Schaffer, exemplifies Jesuit pedagogy," says Dr. Snyder, "in tandem with the scientific method."
As for the professor? Not only does Dr. Schaffer marvel at the level of support Fairfield University made available for the project, but he also marvels at the particular crop of students who made it happen. "They are simply the hardest working group of undergraduates I have worked with in my career," he says.
Dr. Leimkuehler is strongly encouraging Fairfield "to do whatever it can to get another student team together to participate again next year."
That would suit Hermalyn and crew just fine. "It's natural to wonder why NASA would fund anyone to do this," he says. "NASA is not expecting undergraduates to make ground-breaking discoveries. They want to get people interested in space. There's no better way to do that than by taking part in what we did."
Hermalyn, who received special commendation from NASA for a leadership style that earned the respect of student teams and NASA officials alike, heads now to Brown University to pursue a Ph.D. in planetary science. He is, however, keeping his options open. "I certainly wouldn't turn down an astronaut job someday," he says. "Meanwhile, I'm very proud of what we've accomplished, and proud that we have, as one NASA official said, ‘made Fairfield look damned good.'"
Says Dr. Shaffer, "We're ready for Microgravity, Part II."