Riding the “Vomit Comet”

NASA Vomit Comet students

(L-R): Bentzley, Nieusma, Sherman, and Hvasta

This June, four TCNJ students took a ride on a NASA DC-9 jet—affectionately referred to as the “vomit comet”—as part of NASA’s Microgravity University.

Brandon Bentzley ’08, Mike Hvasta ’08, Justin Nieusma ’09, all physics majors, and Rachel Sherman ’09, a physics education major, were accepted into the highly selective program based on a research proposal they submitted last semester. The team has been researching dusty plasmas, which, according to their proposal, “are an important part of astrophysical and ground-based sciences with applications ranging from planetary rings to fusion reactors.” The plasmas make up the majority of the visible universe.

The students proposed a new way to image these plasmas, which would “allow investigators to observe three-dimensional dusty plasma structures better than the traditional two-dimensional laser-sheet methods currently used,” the group’s Web site explained.

To accurately test their hypotheses, “We need microgravity, because ground-based studies compress the sample we’re trying to study,” said Hvasta. “The sample consists of dust particles that all have negative charges, and typically, these charges repel each other and push the cloud upward against gravity. We need this dust to float away from the dust tray so that we can study how it would move in outer space and explain some motional effects that we saw over the summer.”

That’s where the “vomit comet” comes in. The jet provides a nearly weightless environment by following a parabolic flight path. “The weightlessness comes from the floor of the aircraft falling away from us at the same rate we’re falling toward it,” Hvasta explained.

As of press time, the students were scheduled to be at NASA from June 5–14, during which time they would undergo flight training and then have two days aboard the DC-9 to conduct experiments. Look for more information on their experiences in a future issue of TCNJ Magazine.

The choice to apply to the program was a result of collaborative efforts between the students and the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL). Bentzley and Hvasta both began studying plasma physics at PPPL last year through the Department of Energy’s undergraduate research program. The students’ proposal was prepared with the help of Romulo Ochoa, TCNJ professor of physics, and Andrew Zwicker of Princeton Plasma Physics Lab.

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