Four students from The College of New Jersey defied gravity this summer when they conducted experiments over the Gulf of Mexico aboard one of NASA’s DC-9 jets, officially known as the “Weightless Wonder,” but affectionately called the “Vomit Comet.”
Brandon Bentzley ’08 and Mike Hvasta ’08, both recent physics graduates, were joined by current physics major Justin Nieusma ’09 and physics/secondary education double major Rachel Sherman ’09 at the highly competitive NASA program Microgravity University in June.
As reported in the spring 2008 issue of TCNJ Magazine, the research team, which went by the name the Dusty Plasma eXperiment (DPX), spent 10 days in Houston undergoing NASA flight training and performing experiments on dusty plasmas.
The experiment did not operate exactly as planned, but the team was able to obtain sufficient data on the dusty plasmas, which make up the majority of the visible universe, composing everything from comet tails to the rings of Saturn. The team will spend the summer analyzing how the dust particles interacted in a microgravity and hyper-gravity environment before submitting their research to journals for publication.
One of the major setbacks for the team, Hvasta said, was using wood to construct the experiment. Other teams used aluminum and Plexiglas, which proved to be more suitable.
“As a first-time team we made a couple rookie mistakes, but if TCNJ gets into the program again, I’m sure their job will be much more streamlined,” said Hvasta.
The team members were given special badges that allowed them on site at many of NASA’s exclusive places. They were able to tour the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, the world’s largest pool used for training space walkers, as well as the Mission Control Center, which manages all manned space flight for NASA.
Of course the highlight was boarding NASA’s DC-9 jet, an environment void of g-force, which allows passengers to be weightless relative to the aircraft. This weightless sensation often produces nausea, which is why it is called the Vomit Comet.
Sherman, one of only a few females to participate in the program, earned the nickname “Bullet Proof” from several people at NASA because she was the only person unaffected by the high-altitude training.
“Overall we had a terrific time and ended up making a good impression on the staff while conducting some exciting science. Mission accomplished,” said Hvasta.
In addition to expanding their personal educational platforms, team DPX worked with community to reach groups that are currently underrepresented in the sciences.
Prior to attending Microgravity University, they worked with Burlington City High School and West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South, endeavoring to get young scientists more involved. Furthermore, they teamed up with Women in Learning and Leadership (WILL) program at TCNJ and hosted a panel discussion on the role of women in the sciences.
More information about the team can be found at DPX’s Web site: www.dustyplasma.org.