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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
July 22, 2002
Contact: Steve Buchholz, Public Information Manager, 394-6082
Tech Team Flies Tuesday, Weather Permitting
The South Dakota School of Mines and Technology KC-135 team received a treat during its flight Tuesday – two extra trips into zero-gravity. Two Tech students flew aboard the NASA airplane in Houston, Texas to test the effectiveness of a solar sail.
“It was a really incredible experience,” team leader and student John Keefner said. “It was like you feeling when you drive over hill, but it was like that all the time. Some people didn’t handle it too well, but for me, it was great.”
Those who “didn’t handle it too well” helped cement the KC-135’s nickname – the Vomit Comet. The KC-135 achieves zero gravity by flying a series of parabolas at an altitude between 26,000 and 39,000 feet, like a roller coaster. The plane ascends and dives 8,000 feet during each parabola. The plane achieves approximately 25 seconds of zero gravity at the top of each parabola
Tuesday’s flight lasted just under two hours, and the plane flew 42 parabolas. Forty were at zero gravity, one was at Martian gravity and one was at lunar gravity.
Tuesday’s team tested how well a microwave could move a solar sail. The experiment failed in one regard – the solar sail did not move the way the team designed it to move. Keefner believes the sail snagged inside its chamber, but testing will be needed to figure out why. Even with that failure the team learned something.
“We learned that friction plays a critical role in solar sail motion, especially at high accelerations,” Keefner said. “On another positive note, the microwave worked very well, even though we had to jump through so many hoops to get NASA to allow us to use it.”
Two more team members are scheduled to fly Wednesday. That crew will perform a similar experiment, but will test how light, instead of a microwave, moves the solar sail.
Solar sails work like sails on a ship. The solar wind, created by electrically charged particles that flow from the sun at all times, blows at more than a million miles an hour. It blows faster, hotter and thinner than any wind on Earth. Solar sails have many potential uses. They could be used if an asteroid ever threatens Earth. A spacecraft could land on the asteroid and unfurl a solar sail. The sail could guide the asteroid away from Earth and harmlessly into space.
Before flying, the team members trained and prepared for their airborne experience. NASA officials inspected the team’s experiment Monday, and gave it a passing grade after resolving concerns about the microwave apparatus that is part of the team’s project. Team members also toured the Johnson Space Center and had a private dinner with an astronaut in the space shuttle program.
Keefner said the trip so far has matched his very high expectations.
“I’ve been dreaming about this for months, and it was almost identical to what I thought it would be,” he said. “It was really great.”
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Devereaux Library. South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.