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UNL MICROGRAVITY
BY DAN MOTT

Microgravity 1
ABOVE:This year’s Microgravity team poses in the Zero G airplane along with their experiment. Front row left: Andie Gilkey, Kevin Watts, Dr. Carl Nelson, and Dr. Ben Longmier. Back row left: Derek Fierstein, Eldon Summerson, Khoa Chu, Andrew Kelley, Kyrik Weidman, and Joe Bartels.
Photo Courtesy: Andrew Kelley

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Microgravity team consists of students interested in designing, building and testing NASA research projects. “In the fall of each year, NASA has a call for proposals from student teams who are interested in performing research in a microgravity environment on board a specially modified airplane,” said Mechanical Engineering assistant professor Carl Nelson.

Nelson has worked with the team for two years, both times on proposals that were accepted by NASA. “The only competition is in the proposal phase.” Nelson said. “There are a limited number of slots, but once selected, the teams all perform research projects independent of each other.”

BELOW:The experiment is set up to validate the cryocooler efficiency.
Photo Courtesy: Andrew Kelley
Microgravity 2

The teams perform the tests in Houston, where they have a specialized plane that travels an upside-down parabolic path. The centripetal force created by this motion counteracts the force of gravity and gives the sensation of weightlessness. After the proposal is accepted, “The student team then works with the NASA scientist (project mentor) as well as a faculty adviser over a period of several months to prepare an experiment,” said Nelson. The current research project is about testing a cryocooler in the microgravity environment.

“Microgravity is the creation of a sense of reduced weight or weightlessness without actually moving a body or system of bodies far apart,” Nelson said. The team meets once a week to teleconference with their project mentor and work on the project. At the hour-long meetings, each team member is given tasks by the team leader based on their field of study. Most are mechanical engineers but the team is open to any discipline. Work days are set up throughout the week in order to do work on the actual tasks of designing and building the prototype.

“We received our acceptance and project topic in late December and flew the experiment in mid-April,” Nelson said. This time frame gave the team three months to come up with the final design and start testing. ”We also had various reporting deadlines during this period so NASA personnel who manage the program could make sure our experiment was flight-ready when the time came,” he added.

There were two proposals submitted to NASA this year but only one was accepted. Last year UNL had two of the total 10 proposals that were accepted. The process starts with the proposal and ends with a final report that includes all the findings of the tests on the microgravity plane. This program combines all the aspects of engineering from writing proposals, designing, building, testing, and producing a final product or result.

In fall 2010, Lark Bear, Professional Services Coordinator for the College of Engineering, will begin accepting applications for a new team.

For additional information about this year’s Microgravity project, visit: http://engineering.unl.edu/current-students/microgravity/

To learn more about the program visit: http://microgravityuniversity.jsc.nasa.gov/se/