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Engineering students win berth aboard NASA's Weightless Wonder

UW engineering students on a NASA microgravity flight

UW engineering students tested an earlier version of their robot on a NASA microgravity flight in 2003. (large image)

Have you ever been aboard an airplane during heavy turbulence? Did you feel that brief weightless sensation in the pit of your stomach? That's the result of aircraft dipping several hundred feet. Imagine what would happen if the aircraft dropped 10,000 feet in 30 seconds. The result is 30 seconds of weightlessness followed by another 30 seconds of nearly two times the force of gravity as the aircraft climbs at 45 degrees back to an altitude of 34,000 feet. That odd trajectory is the routine flight plan of the KC-135 Weightless Wonder (informally known as the "Vomit Comet") flown by NASA's Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The program offers students a preview of the weightlessness that astronauts experience in space. By flying a parabolic course, the aircraft can create short periods of microgravity in the cargo bay where student teams perform experiments.

Engineering undergraduates Luke Henke, David Zens, Brad Grzesiak and Jon Oiler will board the aircraft this spring to test the ASP II, a third generation free-flying robot designed to assist astronauts in a pressurized, weightless environment.

The robot is propelled by opening and closing irises which release pressurized air from cavities holding counter-rotating fans. The team's goal is to devise a system able to rotate about two of its principal axes and translate in one direction. The robot would help astronauts with all types of tasks, such as videotaping, taking temperatures of experiments, watering plants or fetching tools.

"Our previous experiments flown on the KC-135, including the original Free Flying Autonomous Support Platform and the BORG Freeflyer, showed us that the spherical shape of the ASP II's predecessors is wonderful for achieving rotations, but not desirable for translations," says Henke. "The new, improved design is going to increase translating capabilities and integrate systems that power and control the robot. We're using rapid prototyping to improve the construction which will allow for a more complex body shape and a more efficient, compact design." Time is short. The team learned its proposal was accepted in December. They spent the first month and half designing the ASP II with a computer-aided design program. Henke anticipates he and his teammates will continue to build and refine the robot right up until its scheduled take off in April.