Microgravity Mountaineers: West Virginia University Students to Fly with NASA

This is the first in a series of five articles covering West Virginia University’s Microgravity Research Team whose flight will be taking place this summer. Kerri Phillips has worked with the WVU Microgravity Research Team in the past and is now bringing her experiences to AmericaSpace.

NASA's Reduced Gravity Flight Opportunities Program. Photo Credit: NASA/BoiseState.edu

On December 7, 2011, the NASA Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program (RGSFOP) announced the fourteen undergraduate student teams it had selected to conduct research experiments in a microgravity environment. The West Virginia University Microgravity Research Team 11 (MRT11) became the 11th team in its school history to be selected to conduct their experiment in microgravity. Through the RGSFOP, undergraduate students have the unique opportunity to propose, design, construct, fly and analyze a reduced gravity experiment onboard NASA’s “Weightless Wonder”, a modified Boeing 727-200 aircraft, at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

NASA Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: Kerri Phillips

Each year NASA solicits proposals from university-affiliated undergraduate student teams to compete for the opportunity to conduct research in microgravity. In recent years the number of selected teams has been reduced; however, WVU has remained competitive under the guidance of their faculty advisor, Dr. John Kuhlman of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. The team is comprised of students from the WVU Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources and they are: Aaron Costa, Aaron Deneau, Carla Feragotti, Stewart Harvin, Enmanuel Madera, Jeremy Pepper, Darius Reynolds, Caleb Rice, Alex Squires, Miranda Straub and Nathan Weese.

WVU MRT11. Photo Credit: WVU/John Kuhlman

MRT11’s project is entitled Electrostatically Enhanced Fluidized Bed in Microgravity and aims to “explore a proposed means of allowing fluidized beds to be used in microgravity conditions” according to their proposal. Fluidized beds are commonly used in industrial boilers, furnaces, pressurized combustors, and catalytic converters. The U.S. Department of Energy website explains fluidized beds in the following way:

Fluidized beds suspend solid fuels on upward-blowing jets of air during the combustion process. The result is a turbulent mixing of gas and solids. The tumbling action, much like a bubbling fluid, provides more effective chemical reactions and heat transfer.

The proper functionality of a fluidized bed on Earth relies on gravity, so if this technology is to be applied in a reduced gravity environment another body force becomes necessary. Humans are striving to explore space farther away from Earth, and fluidized bed technology could help make this venture more feasible. Fluidized beds do not directly serve as an alternative fuel; however, they may be able to improve upon fuel efficiency or be used for “in situ resource utilization and for filtration and separation processes related to crew life support in space” according to the proposal. The focus of this experiment will be to test the effects of applying an electrostatic force to the fluidized bed (electrophoresis) in microgravity to act in place of the gravitational force.

WVU Alumnus, Jason Gross, in Microgravity in 2006. Photo Credit: NASA/JSC

The experiment setup will consist of an electric field being created by two charged parallel plates positioned above and below the bed. According to the proposal: “The particles within the bed will be charged and placed in this electric field to produce a net Coulomb force on the particles…The magnitude of the electric force must be strong enough to prevent the particles from accumulating at the top of the bed, but not so strong that the particles become packed at the bottom of the bed. The appropriate magnitude of an electric force will effectively simulate Earth’s gravitational force, resulting in a properly fluidized bed in microgravity.” The team will use high-speed cameras and a data acquisition system for data collection to evaluate the fluidization conditions.

WVU Alumnus, Tristan Wolfe, in Microgravity in 2006. Photo Credit: Tristan Wolfe/Tyler-Blair Sheppard

MRT11 envisioned and planned this experiment, documenting all of the technical details within the proposal submitted to NASA RGSFOP. The proposal described the project goals, the technical applications for future space flight missions, experiment design and proposed execution. It also addressed flight safety requirements for the experiment – standard procedure for these NASA proposals. Once the proposal had been submitted to NASA, MRT11 held a Preliminary Design Review (PDR) in November 2011. For the PDR, past MRT members returned to West Virginia University to sit on a panel as MRT11 presented their proposed experiment. The past members also provided the team with advice on constructing the experiment apparatus as well as what to expect on the aircraft.

WVU Alumni, Corey Snyder and Emily Calandrelli, in Microgravity in 2008. Photo Credit: NASA

WVU Alumnus, Zach Merceruio, in Microgravity in 2009. Photo Credit: Zach Merceruio/Kyle Potts

The projected flight week for MRT11 is June 8 through June 16, 2012. AmericaSpace will continue to have updates on MRT11 and the NASA RGSFOP throughout the process.

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