by Stacy Shoemake
Four times since 1998, teams of Drury students have felt what it's like to float in air. They have felt what it's like to lose all sense of balance. They have felt what it's like to try manipulating sensitive equipment when you can't tell which way is up - or down. Some have felt what it's like to lose a lunch on board a multimillion dollar aircraft.
All have felt a thrill.
The student researchers all were invited to run experiments aboard a NASA jet officially referred to as the "Weightless Wonder," and sometimes unofficially called the "Vomit Comet." By flying up at a 45 degree angle, then tilting into a 45 degree dive, the plane subjects those inside to a two-minute simulation of microgravity. With 30 to 40 climb-and-dive cycles per flight, it's as close as you can get to zero-gravity research without riding a space shuttle.
For Greg Ojakangas, assistant professor of physics, the setup is perfect for student research into the complex interactions between electrically-charged objects. Over the four flights, students have traced how electrical attraction can mirror gravitational attraction. Their experiments attempted to place a small, charged metal sphere into a free-floating orbit around a central sphere of the opposite charge.
"We were trying to model orbital motion using a force other than gravity," says Jeremy McMillan '02, who went on the flights in 2001, "so we were trying to cause a charged sphere to orbit a central charged sphere. By doing that in weightlessness - we were able to float!"
Aside from the amazing experience of flying on a NASA plane and experiencing the effects of zero gravity, McMillan and fellow student Luke Westerman collected enough data to present their work at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research. "Getting experience with some serious research and actually being able to show it off to the public was pretty cool," says Westerman.
"They did a good job." says Ojakangas. "The theory behind this experiment is quite deep for undergraduates and they exhibited a lot of understanding of it." Ojakangas,who was a NASA astronaut finalist in 1994, understands how important it is for his students to take advantage of everything they can. "This was a great opportunity...to learn about how research is conducted, how proposals are created and...the inevitable problems between working theoretically sound concepts and experimental realities."
The fourth flight was the last for this set of experiments because of NASA's "three flights only" clause in the Weightless Wonder program. "We actually got to fly four times because of the soundness of our theory and analysis. They made an exception for us, which was an honor," says Ojakangas. But Ojakangas has plans to return with a new experiment. "I hope to build a zero-gravity robot that turns in zero-g like a cat, so that when you drop it upside down it lands on its feet!"