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Flying Aggies experiment in the air

A team of New Mexico State University engineering students spent part of their summer floating around - in the name of science.

The NMSU Flying Aggies - Joe Fronczek, Aous Manshad, Fabian Melendez and team leader Brian Lusby - participated in NASA's Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program. The program gives undergraduate students a chance to propose, design, fabricate, fly and evaluate a reduced-gravity experiment.

The Flying Aggies' experiment was conducted aboard NASA's C-9 airplane, which creates reduced gravity by flying in a parabola. Once the plane starts to "nose over" the top of the parabola and descend toward Earth, the plane experiences about 25 seconds of microgravity and temporarily becomes a weightless environment. This maneuver is repeated 30 times.

"It was a truly euphoric feeling floating free of all external forces," Lusby said.

"No rollercoaster or carnival ride can compare," Melendez said of the experience.

The team demonstrated magnetism using two small magnets; mass, momentum and inertia using two different-sized balls; fluid mechanics and centrifugal forces using a "tornado in a bottle," and energy of a spring and transfer of momentum using a Slinky.

The experiment is intended to enhance the productivity of space exploration missions, which often are limited by a lack of resources. During a long mission, resources may need to be re-used, and a chemical separation may be needed to separate mixtures produced in various processes.

On Earth, distillation would be one way to separate the chemicals in the mixture. However, distillation relies on gravity and cannot be used in space. The experiment tried to determine whether it is possible to use centrifugal motion and flash distillation to separate chemical mixtures in zero-gravity.

"When you start thinking about long-duration space flight, you have to think about making your own consumables, such as oxygen, food, water and fuel in a zero-gravity or reduced-gravity environment," Lusby said. "Research of such chemical processing has been kept to a basic level in the past, but understanding of advanced applications is a necessity for the future of space flight."

The team designed a test stand that created centrifugal motion. A pressurized vessel with a mixture consisting of two chemicals was placed on the stand, and the stand was turned on before zero gravity was reached.

Once the airplane reached zero gravity, the mixture was released into a flash drum, which forced one chemical to flash vaporize and separate from the liquid. Once on the ground, the chemicals were tested for purity to ensure that the separation was effective. The experiment was successful, but the results weren't quite what the team expected.

"The team succeeded in separating water and carbon dioxide and did obtain a vapor and liquid phase, which was our main concern," Manshad said.

"We believe this experiment should definitely be continued by a group of NMSU undergraduates next year," Fronczek said. "If an additional pump was added to the system it would ensure proper fluid flow, and the results should be more in line with what we were hoping to achieve."

The experiment was difficult to conduct in zero gravity.

"One of the most difficult aspects of the experiment was changing out the test articles during the plane's 2G pull," Melendez said. "Moving and working during the 2G pull was like working with a set of weights on your entire body."

Most of the financial support for the team comes from the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, based at New Mexico State University. They also receive funding from the engineering technology, civil engineering, and mechanical engineering departments.

The program took place at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The team spent July 6 to July 15 at the Space Center, where they attended safety training and finalized experiment construction before their flight.

An important part of the program is outreach. The Flying Aggies will visit local schools to talk about their experience, said Sonya Cooper, Engineering Technology department head and faculty adviser for the team. "They tell them, 'This is what you can do if you study math and science,'" Cooper said.

"Part of our proposal included dedicating some of our zero-gravity time to demonstrate some basic scientific principles on video and to later hold a zero-gravity trivia contest for local middle school MESA programs," Lusby said.

MESA, which stands for Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement, is a nonprofit organization that promotes educational enrichment for middle and high school groups from historically under-represented ethnic groups.