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Texas State students perform microgravity research with NASA

 

By Chelsea Stockton
University News Service
July 22, 2009

 

Seven members of the Texas State University-San Marcos Chemistry Club flew an electrochemistry experiment aboard the NASA microgravity aircraft as part of NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program in June.

With more than 60 applicants from universities all over the nation, Texas State was one of 13 schools selected to fly. The competition accommodates up to 72 teams per year.

The team’s flyers included team leader Nick Mustachio, Becca Flores, David Doughty and Michael Beebower. The ground crew consisted of Lydia Montano, David Myers and David Rosas. The team’s project was overlooked by assistant professor Ben Martin of the chemistry department as well Amber Newport, an assigned NASA advisor who had previously flown aboard the aircraft.

The program provides an opportunity for undergraduate students to successfully propose, design, fabricate, fly and evaluate a reduced gravity experiment. Teams execute their experiments in the weightless atmosphere provided by riding in a Zero-G plane that performs 30 parabolic maneuvers over the Gulf of Mexico.

“It was really cool to see all the ideas that the other schools came up with because we had such a hard time just figuring out experiments that we could do in zero gravity,” team flyer David Doughty said. “Each team had their own idea, and nobody had overlapping experiments. We got to see it all.”

The team’s project focused on the electrochemical reduction of iodohexane. The understanding of electrochemical reactions in microgravity is significant for sensor operation, optimized battery efficiency and many other basic functions in a spacecraft.

According to team leader Nick Mustachio, the team’s goal was to observe how convection currents that were formed in a liquid with different densities would change the operation of an electrochemical cell. Their experimental rig (designed to help hold the electrochemical cells in place) consisted of a containment system for three cells; two of the cells were electrochemical, while the third cell was filled with dyed ethanol and water to help make a visual representation of what was happening in microgravity.

The project took about a year to complete from constructing the initial idea to actually performing it during the flight. But preparing to perform an experiment on a Zero-G plane that shifts between sharp inclines and free falls is vastly different from the actual act.

“The first few parabolas I strapped myself down, as per their warning,” Doughty said. “At first, I was completely content with letting my arms float around. I was thinking, ‘this is awesome.’”

“One of the flight directors told us before hand to ‘make a memory,’” Mustachio said. “To use one parabola away from our research to just float up, look around and see what it looks like. To soak it all in. I looked around the cabin. I saw that people were upside down and sideways. Becca’s sunglasses were just sort of floating there right in front of me. It‘s like you‘re floating in a room. You have no sensation that you‘re falling.”

Back on the ground, the team is currently in the process of reviewing, analyzing and preparing the data collected from their performance for a final report to be turned in to NASA. After that, Mustachio said that the team hopes to see what they can publish, as well as put the word out there about the program and what it has to offer.

“Floating in zero gravity,” Mustachio said with a slight shake of his head. “It’s something I never thought I’d be doing my senior year of college. It was probably the wildest flight I’ll ever take in my life.”