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Weightless Science Attracts Students

A team consisting of four UC Davis students studying the formation of new materials got the chance to test their theories in NASA's "Weightless Wonder." Popularly known as the "Vomit Comet", the converted KC-135 plane flies a series of roller-coaster maneuvers that drop the apparent gravity on the plane to about 1% earth-normal gravity.


(From Weightless on Vomit Comet Homepage)

The students ignite a mixture of metal powders placed in an electric field; by igniting one end, a wave of combustion passes through the mixture, raising temperatures to 1500 degrees Celsius. New materials are formed; some have unique properties, like nanomaterials made up of very small crystals. Zuhair Munir, professor of chemical engineering and materials science, hypothesizes that a low-gravity environment should sharpen the effect of the electric field.

What is it like conducting materials science experiments out in low gravity? One student remarked

"Your first reaction is that you're trying to swim in the air and nothing happens -- your legs are spinning like a cartoon character!"

As fans of classic science fiction know, the first person to write about the weightlessness that occurs in space travel was Jules Verne. You've read what this student says about the experience; read what Verne hypothesized what the weightless state would feel like in his 1867 novel From the Earth to the Moon.

Update 15-Jan-2024: In 1638, The Man in the Moone by Bishop Francis Godwind, was published posthumously. It contains what appears to be the first account of the concept of weightlessness. End Update.

See the reference article here, or ride the Vomit Comet at Nasa.gov.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 12/19/2003)

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