Flying Aggies take on zero gravity

By Tracey O’Neil

NMSU's Flying Aggies

Mechanical engineering student Jeremy Burggemann and electrical engineering student Jacob Gilbert conduct a zero-gravity experiment aboard NASA’s “Weightless Wonder” aircraft.

The NMSU Flying Aggies boarded NASA’s “Weightless Wonder” with a new team and a new experiment this summer to perform experimentation in microgravity that could improve the future of space flight. NMSU has been sending Flying Aggie teams to Houston since 2001.

Mechanical engineering students Jeremy Bruggemann, Ryan Cole, Micah Kecman and Gwynne Skaggs-Ryan, along with electrical engineering student Jacob Gilbert, designed the experiment selected to participate in NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program.  This summer, the team traveled to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Tex. To board the modified McDonnell Douglas DC-9 jetliner to conduct their microgravity experiment.

The team was selected for the competitive NASA program this year for its proposed Inertial Property Algorithm Verification (IPAV) experiment. The project is designed to verify a new algorithm for identifying a spacecraft’s changing inertial properties formulated by Ou Ma, mechanical engineering professor and technical adviser to the team.

Before the team’s departure for Houston, Taylor Owens, an electrical engineering student, assisted the team with the programming for the control system while Joshua Miller, also an electrical engineering student, helped with some of the electrical aspects of the project.

The first week of the team’s 10-day Houston visit included physiological training and time for the team to ready their experiment for flight. The team members were split for two separate flights. Thirty times on each flight, the plane “noses over” the top of a parabola and as it heads back down toward Earth, the plane’s passengers experience about 25 seconds of microgravity.

Aware that they only had limited amount of time in which to perform the experiment, the team designed its experiment to perform and record specified actions while experiencing zero gravity while team members observed and ensured the apparatus did not get damaged when time was up.

As the 25 seconds of microgravity commenced, one team member released the box-shaped device with a robotic arm attached on top into a free-floating state. Upon being released, the robotic arm began to extend and contract in intervals of 90 degrees to 180 degrees. During these intervals the angular velocity and acceleration of the entire floating system began to change.  These parameters were measured and recorded by sensors on board the free floating system.  The students are currently processing the data that was recorded and will input it into the algorithm to generate a large set of results.  These results will then be compared to results that have been produced at NMSU using precision laboratory equipment in order to verify the algorithm’s accuracy.

Bruggemann said that theoretical studies of the algorithm have shown it to be capable of generating highly accurate results. However, the algorithm needs to be experimentally verified.  That is why the experiment needed to be performed.  Bruggemann indicated that, in all, the experiment went well due to the efforts of the whole team. If the experiment were to be conducted again, however, the team would improve the release system for the equipment used for generating constant initial conditions of the floating system.

“In all things, we learn from our failures,” Bruggemann said as he described some of the difficulties they encountered in microgravity.  He went on to say, “the data obtained is going to help us achieve our goal and possibly contribute to the advancement of spaceflight technology. If proven to be accurate, the algorithm could be implemented to make space flight more efficient and provide savings in fuel.”

Stomachs turned on the flight reminding everyone why the aircraft is sometimes referred to as the “vomit comet.”

“I think the best part of the experience was the experience itself,” Bruggemann said. “It was an invaluable experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.”

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