Washington University students to ride microgravity plane
Many people know it as the “Vomit Comet.”
The formal name is the C-9 microgravity plane, a NASA resource that will be used this spring by a group of students from Washington University’s Aerospace Systems Lab as part of the University’s nanosatellite project.
The Bandit/Akoya project, a name that refers to the two satellites involved, has been underway since 2003. Since that time, the team has designed and built the two-part satellite.
The test this spring will determine the functionality of Bandit’s maneuvering abilities in a zero gravity environment.
Akoya, the host satellite, weighs just 29 kilograms, while Bandit weighs three. During flight, Bandit can detach and maneuver around Akoya.
The Bandit is designed to control and orient itself during flight but can also be controlled remotely.
Sophomore Katie Sullivan, the team leader, said the satellite needs to be tested in a zero gravity environment in order to see if it can be maneuvered properly.
“We have absolutely no idea how these things function in space. We want to see how it functions in zero gravity. The only way you can do that on earth is to take a plane and fly straight down,” said Sullivan.
The test is part of NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program. The University is one of 11 schools participating in the Nanosat-5 competition.
Junior Mary Mathias has worked on the project since last year. According to Mathias, a different team also performed tests on the satellite last year, but it did not yield the desired results. The problem was that the design of the experiment did not allow Bandit to move freely, as it was confined to a large box. This time, however, the satellite will not be confined.
“It didn’t work so well because you have such a short time of microgravity, [and] it was hitting the sides of the box. We are going to do a free float this time,” said Mathias.
According to Sullivan, allowing Bandit to free float will give much better data regarding the propulsion system, but it will also present additional challenges due to the speed of the plane and the potential for problems.
“[The satellite] will not be attached to the plane, which is dangerous,” said Sullivan. “There [need] to be people watching it at all times.”
Last year, the University’s team finished second place in the competition. Cornell University, last year’s winner, will not be competing. If the University wins this year, the team will have the opportunity to launch the satellite.
“We don’t want it to be here, we want it to be in space. So many people worked on it through their college years [and] graduated,” said Sullivan.
Many improvements have been made to the satellite with each subsequent test.
“Last year, Bandit could only see a quarter frame per second. Now it can see 15 frames per second,” said Sullivan. “We are seeing in time what [Bandit] would be seeing in space, which is good, because if something were to happen, we really can’t be seeing a quarter frame per second. We wouldn’t be able to save it then.”
Sullivan said both she and the University have benefited from participating in such a project.
“I feel like it has added a lot to my college experience. I came to Wash. U. because of the satellite program,” she said.
According to Mathias and Sullivan, the project also has an outreach segment, which visits several local schools to educate students.
“There’s not a lot of space knowledge sharing going on in middle school situations because space is really expensive. You can’t do it in middle school. It’s an exciting tie for us to have with the middle school [students],” said Sullivan.
The group’s proposal states that a craft similar to Akoya/Bandit would be useful “to investigate and photograph another spacecraft at close range” and be used to check for damage.
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