College physics group plans to get spacey

Brandon Bentzley and Mike Hvasta, senior physics majors, Justin Nieusma, junior physics major, and Rachel Sherman, junior physics/secondary education major, will be spending a week of their summer vacations at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The group, called Team DPX, was recently selected as one of 40 teams from across the nation that will have the opportunity to perform an experiment in NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Program. Other schools such as Brown University, Cornell University and Yale University are also sending teams to the program. The College’s team will be the only one from New Jersey.

According to Hvasta and NASA’s Web site, the teams will be split up over four weeks and will ride the “Weightless Wonder,” a plane that flies over the Gulf of Mexico and performs “parabolic maneuvers.” This allows for about 25 seconds of reduced gravity as the plane descends from the top of the parabola to the bottom. The maneuvers will be repeated approximately 30 times.

The College’s team will be flying during the program’s second week, from June 5 to June 14. They will be performing an experiment on dusty plasmas, which make up the majority of the visible universe, including comet tails and the rings of Saturn.

“If you apply heat or energy to a solid, it will melt,” Hvasta said. “So, ice into water. If you keep adding energy, water to steam. But if you keep adding heat, the atoms themselves start to fall apart. They start to lose electrons and that’s a plasma. That’s a fourth state of matter, if you keep dumping energy into it.”

Bentzley said their team is specifically focusing on techniques of imaging plasmas, something little scientific literature has been written about.

“To study this in the past . what they did was they scan a laser through (the plasma),” Bentzley said. “So what they’re doing is taking a two-dimensional cross section and looking at the structure of the plasma. So that’s all fine and good, but the thing is, it’s a three-dimensional structure, so you want to look at it head-on and see all three dimensions of it.”

In order to get a three-dimensional image of the plasma, the team uses a fluorescent dust that glows under ultraviolet light. This allows for a better picture than laser techniques provide.

Hvasta and Bentzley became interested in studying plasmas while working at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab (PPPL), where Hvasta has worked for nine months and Bentzley has worked for three years. When Hvasta’s supervisor mentioned NASA’s program, Hvasta sent an e-mail to several physics majors and Sherman and Nieusma responded.

“The smallest team allowed is four members, so we are the smallest legal team, I guess,” Hvasta said. “So there’s a lot of work to go around, but if this works out as well as we hope it does, it’s going to be a lot easier for (the College) to do this program in the future.”

The team members have several outreach programs planned for when their experiment is completed. They will be conducting a series of workshops titled “Energy in the 21st Century” at West Windsor High School South and Burlington City High School. They will meet with the two school’s science clubs over a period of four weeks and will end the program with a tour of PPPL.

According to Sherman, they will also be doing a program with Women In Learning and Leadership to help target women, who she said are underrepresented in the sciences.

Sherman also said their final outreach program will be talking about their experiences at the Liberty Science Center.

“They’re actually going to be taping us inside the plane,” Sherman said. “We’ll get the tape about six weeks after we get back, so hopefully we’re going to have that for the Liberty Science Center program.”

According to Hvasta, the team will be looking for opportunities for publicity and sponsors before they leave for Houston.

“We have a lot of space on our experiment to put stickers and we’ll be doing hopefully a lot more publicity, so we can wear hats and everything like that,” he said.

For more information on the Reduced Gravity Student Flight Program, visit NASA’S Microgravity University Web site at or the team’s site at

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