Science students defy gravity at NASA program

This past summer, two current College students and two alumni were able to fly.

Team DPX, comprising senior physics majors Justin Nieusma and Rachel Sherman, and alumni Brandon Bentzley ’07 and Mike Hvasta ’07, traveled to NASA Headquarters in Houston, Texas, in June. They were participants in the program Microgravity University, also called the Reduced Gravity Student Flight Program.

According to the NASA Web site, the program allows “undergraduate students to successfully propose, design, fabricate, fly and evaluate a reduced gravity experiment.”

“Not often do you get to have real hands-on experience of this caliber as an undergraduate,” Nieusma said. “We had to do everything ourselves: design of the experiment, drawings, research and conducting the experiment in microgravity.” The team members conducted an experiment focused on imaging dusty plasma. Dusty plasma is present on Earth in light bulbs and computer chips, and in space in Saturn’s rings and comet tails. According to Nieusma, the team members created flourescent dust to look at dusty plasma in 3-D. Previous methods used a laser sheet method, only allowing the plasma to be seen in two dimensions.

“This was my first real hands-on application of things.” Nieusma said. (The experience) changed the way I think about science.”

Team DPX wanted to participate in the Microgravity University because “on Earth, gravity is a limiting factor in our experiments,” according to the team’s Web site, Microgravity is equivalent to experiencing one-millionth of Earth’s gravity. In such an environment, the team members were able to literally fly around.

According to NASA, “the reduced gravity aircraft generally flies 30 parabolic maneuvers over the Gulf of Mexico.” As the plane climbs to the top of the parabola, the members experience about 30 seconds of hypergravity. Then, as it descends towards Earth, the plane experiences about 25 seconds of microgravity.

To get to NASA, the team had to submit a long proposal, containing more than 50 pages outlining the experiment, as well as any technical and safety issues. Community outreach, such as media and speeches, were also included in the proposal.

Only the top 40 teams from various schools were selected to participate. Team members were notified about two months after they submitted a proposal.

This year, Team DPX ranked No. 3. It was the only team from New Jersey participating, and the first team ever selected from the College. The team also had support from Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, where Bentzley and Hvasta conducted previous experiments.

“We are (College) students and this is a (College) project,” Sherman said. “Still, it was nice to receive strong support from two institutions.”

The team flew down to Texas in mid-June to conduct the experiment.

“We were on the microgravity plane for two hours over the course of two days,” Nieusma said. “But we were down in Houston for 12 days.”

The rest of the time was spent prepping for the experiment and undergoing safety training at the NASA facility.

“They take it very seriously,” Nieusma said. “They will not put us up there until they’re absolutely sure we know what will happen in emergency situations. They’re very careful.”

The team went on the plane on two separate days, with two members flying and collecting data on each day.

The results from the experiment were “very good,” according to the team. A large amount of data collected is currently being analyzed by Bentzley and Hvasta for possible future publication.

The team is now working on another proposal to go to Houston next summer, to conduct the experiment once more to get better results.

“We learned from the last time that we need more than four flyers,” Sherman said. “We were the smallest crew there. Next time we’ll have a ground crew and more engineering majors to provide their area of expertise.”

“(The College) will get known soon for (continuing) to send teams to NASA,” Nieusma said.

An important part of the post-experiment phase was outreach. The team members made numerous presentations along with the creation of the Web site The site includes pictures and descriptions of the experiment. The team also presented at Liberty Science Center.

“Our presentation at Liberty Science Center was the biggest thing,” Sherman said. “But we still do presentations and interviews at our ‘home’ institutions. I mean, we went to NASA. (People at home) are very proud.”

This summer’s experience at Microgravity University has influenced the career aspirations of Team DPX. Nieusma is considering a career working for NASA after graduation next year. Bentzley, with a long-standing goal of going to medical school, is now looking at the possibility of going into space as part of a medical staff.

Sherman will continue pursuing the path to teaching, with a “cool story to tell in the classroom,” she said. “I’ll be the teacher that went to NASA.”

She said, “Getting kids excited about science is what I want to do in my profession, and (telling the story) is a very cool opportunity to do so.”

“We hope to leave a legacy at (the College),” Nieusma said. “Showing others that they can do this, (that they can) go, get involved and perform experiments outside the classroom. This was an amazing experience. I don’t think I can top it.”