Geology Majors Test “Martian Soil” With NASA Microgravity Program

Posted July 26th, 2012 at 1:57 pm.

Left to right: Christina, Alice, Mary, Hannah, Simona, Danyelle

Left to right: Christina Lee '12, Alice Clark '12, Mary Schultz '12, Hannah Gatz Miller '12, Simona Clausnitzer '14, Danyelle Phillips '14

A team of six geology majors and their faculty advisor, Assistant Professor Selby Cull, were in Houston this month taking part in NASA’s Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program, in which student researchers are able to do experiments in near-zero gravity aboard a specially modified Boeing 727 that’s been dubbed “The Vomit Comet.”

Making up the team were Alice Clark ’12, Simona Clausnitzer ’14, Hannah Gatz-Miller ’12, Christina Lee ’12, Danyelle Phillips ’14, Mary Schultz ’12, and Anna Woodson ’12. Woodson was unable to travel to Houston.

The team was interested in measuring the porosity of Martian soil simulant using a spectrometer at a range of microgravity levels, including the specific gravity of Mars. The soil simulant is weathered volcanic ash from Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano.

Christina Lee '12 holds on during her ride on NASA's reduced gravity aircraft

Christina Lee '12 holds on during her ride on NASA's reduced gravity aircraft

The team chronicled its experience on the Bryn Mawr Microgravity Team blog, which includes inflight pictures of the team conducting experiments.

To create the effect of near-weightlessness, the plane engages in parabolic maneuvers, during each of which it climbs to an altitude of nearly 34,000 feet and then goes into a 15-25 second free fall.

“To get to Zero-G, you must first go through hypergravity – specifically, 2-G’s of it.  And that, is weird.  2-G is like all those times when you’re sick and you think you’re lifting your head or your arm but really you’re not,” wrote Gatz-Miller on the Microgravity Team Blog. “After 2-G however, there is about a two second long transition, and suddenly up is down and you’re falling really fast but, since you can’t see the outside, it just feels like you’re floating.  For about twenty seconds, we got to stick our proverbial tongues out at gravity (or at least, our perception of it) and play at being able to fly.”


More from the blog:

“After a few parabolas to get used to the sensation, we strapped ourselves to the floor, and commenced with what we were actually supposed to be doing: taking spectra.

During the 32 Zero-G parabolas, we had to time our spectra measurements to about a second after the no gravity started heading back into micro-gravity.  The gravity changed very quickly, so we ended up with a range of microgravity spectra measurements, not just those from Mars.  Our best data likely came from the four specifically Lunar and Martian gravity parabolas near the end.  Tamra ended up taking over for one of our teammates when she became horribly ill, but in the end, we had the data.”

After a total of 2.1 flight hours, we landed back at Ellington, content in the knowledge that every other plane ride for the rest of our lives is likely to be incomparably dull.”

More photos and videos will be posted to the BMC Microgravity Team Blog in the weeks ahead.

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