Engineering students ride in reduced gravity with NASA

July 1, 2010 | Research, UToday
By Josh Martin

While most people probably would recoil from the notion of riding something called a “Vomit Comet,” a group of five University of Toledo bioengineering students and a faculty member jumped at the opportunity.


The UT team was one of only 14 selected nationwide and was in good company with teams from MIT, Ohio State, Purdue and Yale.

David Mette, Katie Kodrich, Allison Pitchler, Blaine Best, Kyle Killam and Dr. Constantine Demetropoulos, research associate professor of bioengineering, conducted a microgravity experiment for NASA in April aboard an aircraft, often referred to as the “Vomit Comet,” used to simulate weightlessness for its passengers. The euphemistic designation derives from the tendency of the passengers to become airsick during the flight.

“The experience was truly unique,” said Mette, adding he could characterize it only as “indescribable.” The effect lasted for 15 to 25 seconds “depending on the weather and the pilot’s course of action,” he said.

The group went weightless a total of 28 times during testing — and no one became sick.

The venture was part of the students’ senior design project, a requirement for engineering students to graduate. Mette said he discovered the Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program online and the group agreed “they wanted do something cool.” They applied to the NASA program and were accepted in December 2009.

UT bioengineering student Kyle Killam gave a thumb’s up while riding in NASA’s “Vomit Comet.”

UT bioengineering student Kyle Killam gave a thumb’s up while riding in NASA’s “Vomit Comet.”

For the project, they decided to devise a “sharps container” for use on the International Space Station orbiting Earth. These receptacles are designed to contain used syringes and related liquids in a zero-gravity environment — a situation that presents unique dangers to astronauts. Two prototypes of the container were developed and tested by the group at zero gravity.

“The first prototype — which depended on a gel layer for the sharp objects to be inserted into — did not succeed as it leaked liquid,” Mette said.

The second prototype was successful at containing the six objects and the water inserted in it for the test. Mette said it used “rubber flaps in a crisscross pattern that would quickly reseal after an object was inserted and had walls lined with liquid absorbent inside.”

The aircraft achieves zero gravity by flying along a parabolic trajectory relative to the planet’s center, similar to a roller coaster. During the 45-degree angle of ascent and descent, gravity is approximately twice as strong as normally felt on Earth. But as the aircraft moves up and over the apex of the climb, the passengers essentially are orbiting the Earth and attain weightlessness. The pattern is repeated several times.

“Being a part of this experience was a rare honor,” said Demetropoulos, who valued seeing the students apply what they learned in their classes to the design task. “Following a year of hard work, the visit to Houston allowed our students to showcase their abilities among a field of students from other top academic programs throughout the country. I was proud to be associated with their effort.”

“This was a great opportunity for our students, and I am delighted that they ambitiously pursued it and were successful,” said Dr. Nagi Naganathan, dean of the College of Engineering. “I want to thank Professor Ron Fournier of our Bioengineering Department for serving as the faculty mentor for our student team and for encouraging our students to pursue such unique experiences.”

Mette also was proud of the work and optimistic about its future impact.

“Hopefully working with NASA is something that students and faculty at UT can participate regularly in further down the road and have it become a tradition,” he said.

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