Utah State students take ride in ‘Zero G' for NASA experiment

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LOGAN -- Some high-flying students at Utah State University have slipped the bonds of gravity. They went "Zero G" to figure out how water boils if there's not enough gravity to make bubbles go up.

Floating around in Zero G has got to be the dream of half the human race, but only a tiny fraction get to do it. In this case, NASA gave the Utah State students a free ride, Zero G, over the Gulf of Mexico.

‘Yeah, it was way fun. It was tons of fun, actually, until you get a little sick," said USU sophomore Travyn Mapes.

Mapes says he and his fellow students got sick, had fun and did science experiments aboard NASA's Zero G simulator.

The simulator is a Boeing 727, flying out of Houston. It climbs and dives, over and over, 30 times.

During each dive, the students had 20 seconds of blessedly-low gravity to enjoy and to do science, and NASA paid for it.

"Yeah, it kind of makes it feel like your experiment is important to the scientific community," Mapes said.

Their experiment has to determine what is different when you boil water on earth versus when you boil water in space.

The Utah State students had dozens of chambers filled with water. Video cameras show tiny platinum wires instantly heating up each time they went Zero G.

What is... The Microgravity University?
The Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program provides a unique academic experience for undergraduate students to successfully propose, design, fabricate, fly and evaluate a reduced gravity experiment of their choice over the course of four-six months. The overall experience includes scientific research, hands-on experimental design, test operations and educational/public outreach activities. -NASA

"We have a switch, and as soon as we go weightless we switch on that switch, and that starts the boiling; and you can see the bubbles shoot out horizontally," said USU senior Justin Koeln.

"If this was on Earth," Koeln continued, "all the bubbles would be going up to the top of the water. But here, they just kind of float around and don't really go anywhere."

Then when the 20 seconds of Zero G ends the bubbles suddenly do go to the top. It's an obvious result, perhaps, but more surprising is that the wire cools off drastically a split-second after the wire heats up. The bubbles take heat away, a phenomenon that's less pronounced under normal gravity.

"We're looking at these differences and we're trying to see if boiling is something that can be done in space for electronics cooling or power generation," Koeln said.

Long-term space missions to places like Mars may hinge on efficient boiling. Teams of students and scientists around the world are working on similar experiments, but not all of them are having quite so much fun.

E-mail: jhollenhorst@ksl.com


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