UCSD Microgravity Team Wins National Contest

The UCSD Microgravity Team has won the chance to take part in a NASA test flight in a recent contest. A team of 12 engineering students won the proposal portion of the NASA Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program and will send five members onto NASA’s Weightless Wonders aircraft in July to perform an experiment in a reduced-gravity environment to understand the droplet burning characteristics of bioethanol and biobutanol. The judges, a committee of NASA employees at the NASA headquarters in the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, announced the winners on Dec. 5.

The team’s proposal was an experiment to better understand biofuel combustion rates and compare the results to previous experiments that determined the combustion rates of fossil fuels and non-plant-based alcohols.

“An improved understanding of the combustion of these biofuels may lead to improvements in ground-based vehicle engines and fire safety aboard spacecrafts, among other possible innovations,” UCSD junior and flyer Sam Avery said.

The five members of the “fly team” are students Jack Goodwin, Victor Hong, Josh Sullivan, Daneesha Kenyon and project manager Sam Avery. They will go on two flights, each with about 25 parabolic maneuvers that give the team a 20-second window of near-zero gravity to perform their experiment.

The experiment begins with a semi-automatic process that starts when the microprocessors sense the plane is entering microgravity. A syringe will release a droplet of the biofuels onto a wire held tightly across a box. The team will ignite the fuel and record the diameters of the droplets using special cameras. They expect to perform the experiment at least 30 times to ensure accuracy.

A reduced gravity environment is void of buoyancy — caused by gravity — that affects the shape of the droplets and could lead to inaccurate data.

“It is very difficult to obtain accurate burning rate data of spherically symmetric droplets under normal gravity conditions,” Avery said.

The plane creates the necessary reduced gravity conditions through continuous arched shaped flights. At the height of the parabola, weightlessness is felt, similar to the effect of a rollercoaster.

Part of the proposal also included an Outreach to Kids program. The team members will visit underrepresented schools in the San Diego area and carry out various demonstrations, experiments and activities for students in grades K-12.

According to its website, the purpose of the program is to “inspire young, underrepresented students to pursue an interest in STEM fields and show them that the possibility of doing so is achievable.”

Avery was inspired by the research of UCSD mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Dr. Forman A. Williams in the study of flames in microgravity, and wanted to conduct a combustion experiment that hadn’t been done before, leading to the use of biofuels.

UCSD was chosen as one of the 14 winners among the more than 50 universities nationwide that entered the contest. NASA chose winners based on the quality of the research proposals and design of their experiments.

“Although this is a great experience for us, I think it is even greater for UC San Diego, as we are getting recognition on a national level,” ground crew member and aerospace engineering student Nico Montoya said. “We are helping to build a name for our school by accomplishing something real and professionally sponsored [by NASA], not just something done in the classroom.”

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