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The University Magazine

University Magazine - Winter 2009 Image

Greg Sharp ’08, right, and Jarret Whetstone ’08 celebrate the success of their experiment aboard NASA’s Weightless Wonder.

Found in Space

RIT team rides ‘Vomit Comet’ in the name of science

Three recent graduates and one student from RIT’s imaging and photographic technology program experienced human space flight without leaving Earth’s orbit last July.

James Craven ’08, Greg Sharp ’08, fourth-year student Christopher Ubelacker and Jarret Whetstone ’08 earned an opportunity to fly aboard NASA’s Weightless Wonder, a C-9 aircraft that climbs to a 45- degree angle over the Gulf of Mexico and then nosedives to simulate zero gravity.

RIT’s team spent a week at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston as part of its Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program. Student teams from other top universities including Brown University, University of Michigan, University of Kansas and University of Texas were also accepted. The program allows undergraduate students to propose, build and fly a reduced gravity scientific experiment. RIT was one of 40 selected from more than 80 submissions.

“I am really excited I got to go,” says Sharp. “It was a lot of fun. I had to keep grabbing onto things to keep myself from floating all over uncontrollably.”

The aircraft, popularly known as the “Vomit Comet,” follows a parabolic flight path over the Gulf of Mexico, providing short periods of free fall in which people experience reduced gravity or weightlessness, similar to a ride on a rollercoaster. During the 90-minute flight, participants experience more than 30 free falls, each lasting between 18 and 25 seconds.

The RIT team’s experiment looked at the feasibility of inkjet printing in a microgravity environment, focusing on print heads, ink drop characteristics, ink drop flight and printing accuracy.

“We tested thermal and piezo electric methods of inkjet printing, printing out standard targets to see if there were changes in quality,” says Craven. “We also used a high-speed camera to image an inkjet droplet to determine if there were diff erences in size, shape, speed and amount.”

One potential application of the inkjet technology for long-term space missions would be creating circuit boards.

“Our experiment found the technology is capable of working in a microgravity environment. However, for optimum results, the printers’ moving parts would need to be modified to compensate for those conditions,” says Ubelacker. “The movement degraded their effectiveness.”

Team members got to meet astronaut Barbara Morgan and present their experiment. They also toured mission control for the International Space Station.

This is the second time since NASA began the program that an RIT proposal made the cut. A student team flew in 1997.

So did the Vomit Comet live up to its reputation? For some, not all.

“Weightlessness is quite an interesting experience — along with the nausea that comes with it,” says Whetstone. “Luckily for me, I did not expel anything.”

Web extra: To watch a video of the team’s flights, go to www.rit.edu/news and click on Latest Podcasts.

To learn more about the program, go to http://imaging.rit.edu.

Kelly Downs