UCF creates center to study planet formation

Central Florida Future

Originally published in the Central Florida Future: http://www.centralfloridafuture.com/news/ucf-creates-center-to-study-planet-formation-1.2718248?pagereq=1

Lab room 461 in UCF’s Physical Science building is filled with common engineering equipment including helium leak detectors, vacuum pumps and portable voltage sources. But the experiments taking place in this room may steer UCF into being an international leader in microgravity research. 

The Center for Microgravity Research and Education is a joint venture between UCF and Space Florida, an aerospace economic development agency. The center, which is located onUCF’s Orlando campus, conducts and facilitates research inmicrogravity. 

“Some of the experiments that we’re working on in the center are looking at the early stages of planet formation, studying how those objects collide and stick together,” said Dr. Joshua Colwell, the director of CMRE and an associate professor of physics atUCF. “We need microgravity to simulate that.”

According to NASA’s website, microgravity emerges whenever an object is in free fall. Unlike what the name may imply, microgravity doesn’t refer to low levels of gravity but rather the condition of an object moving freely in response to gravity.

Colwell, whose research has primarily been in planetary sciences, continues to perform experiments in that area of astronomy at the center. 

As a result, Colwell and the center can help UCF establish itself as a worldwide competitor in microgravity research.

Just last year, UCF hosted the second Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference, a forum for researchers and professionals who wanted to learn about the research, education and public outreach capabilities of commercial space vehicles. 

“We had participants of that meeting from a number of different countries, about 10 to 15 different countries,” Colwellsaid. “It’s all part of the process, it doesn’t happen overnight. But I think UCF is well in the way of establishing itself as a player in doing research in this area.”

But Colwell doesn’t want the center to achieve international popularity just for acclamation; CMRE can also help in bringing jobs and economic investment to Central Florida.

“As a leading center for microgravity research, we should be able to draw new commercial launch providers to Florida and help to bring high-tech jobs here,” Colwell said. 

And with Masten Space Systems’, a Mojave, Calif.-based aerospace company, recent $400,000 contract with Space Florida, we’re already seeing the financial prospects.

Masten will perform demonstration launches at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and Colwell hopes that his team can get involved.

“We hope to provide them with payloads,” said Colwell, referring to cargo that is carried on a space shuttle. “As well as with an incentive for more launches.” 

Colwell and his crew, a team of UCF graduate and undergraduate students, are currently trying to develop those payloads, which they’re able to examine by achieving microgravity. 

The team creates microgravity through ground-based and flight-based methods.

They built a 12-foot drop tower, an apparatus that enables various payloads to be dropped from the top, in their lab.

“So we basically drop a box from a ceiling and the experiment goes on for .8 seconds,” said Amanda Stevenson,CMRE’s microgravity laboratory manager. “We have a high-speed camera that’s attached to it, so we have to design an experiment that can operate in that little time.”

Because the drop tower is readily available for experimentation, it’s cheap and quick to retrieve data from. But for experiments that do need more than a second’s worth of collection time, the team takes advantage of two different platforms: parabolic flights and suborbital rockets.

“When you go on the parabolic aircraft, you get 30-seconds of flight,” said Nico Brown, a mechanical engineer who assists Stevenson at the center. “For the suborbital aircraft you might get a minute or two.”

As with most of life’s treasures, the greater the time spent achieving microgravity, the more expensive the experiment gets. 

Fortunately, the center will not be affected by the $52.6 million budget cut currently hitting UCF. 

“Half of the funding comes from Space Florida and the remaining funding has come from a variety of internal sources,” Colwellsaid. “It’s already here, so we don’t have anything at stake.”

This is imperative because CMRE offers UCF more than just financial rewards and influence in microgravity research. Colwell, who’s working with a team of UCF engineering and physics majors, gives students the boost they need to begin their careers in this field. 

“I want to get my foot in the door, network and build up my résuméso that I do have experience when I graduate from college,” said Kelly Lai, a junior aerospace engineering major currently working at CMRE. 

“Everything that you learn in a classroom is more book-based. In the lab, everything is hands-on. … You learn better this way.”

 
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