Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering
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AEM spotlight:

Students conduct scientific experiments (and have fun) in microgravity

James Flaten

AEM Reduced Gravity Team Member Eric Blake is seen here floating onboard NASA's "Weightless Wonder."

Few people will have the opportunity to experience the weightlessness an astronaut does while in space. However, several students each year get close. Annually, students are accepted by NASA’s Microgravity University where they run scientific experiments in reduced-gravity environments. The feeling of weightlessness is caused by a special flight trajectory flown by NASA’s specially-equipped aircraft, the Weightless Wonder (seen below).

This year, students from the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics measured cavitation in a microgravity environment. Cavitation is the phenomenon in which water vapor bubbles are generated in fast-moving liquids, like the bubbles one might observe behind a propeller. Collapse of these bubbles can cause damage to the propeller. Many machines experience cavitation in surrounding liquids.

AEM’s Reduced Gravity team decided to study cavitation in part because of real-world implications - the consequences of machine failure caused by cavitation could be disastrous for applications requiring the use of the machinery, like for a propeller used on a submarine or even a pump used in a spacecraft on a long-term mission, according to the team’s proposal.

While many teams typically build on the project from the year before, this year’s team wanted to do something novel, Co-team Lead Erik Axdahl said.

“We wanted to do something unique and I think we succeeded,” he said.

After experiencing some problems and other technical difficulties in the time leading up to the experiment, the team pulled together and created an experimental set-up that successfully measured cavitation in microgravity.

As to the actual experience of the flight, it was simply “indescribably awesome,” Axdahl said.

“It’s hard to describe because experiencing weightlessness isn’t what you think it’s going to be,” he said. “It’s like skydiving without the wind being against you; you have full range to at least try and move, but you might be standing there and suddenly your feet go over your head and there’s nothing you can do.”

In addition to enjoying the actual weightlessness, where one can perform a “Superman” (flying across the cabin), Axdahl said he enjoyed the experience because “from an academic point and a professional development point, it’s really thrilling to see a side of engineering you don’t see in class.”

Team work played a large role in the success of the mission, he said.

“Everybody brought something different to the table,” he said.

“When we were getting the experiment to run in Houston, the whole group pulled through to meet every deadline and to get the experiment off the ground - literally.”

While the days of the Weightless Wonder (also lovingly known as the “Vomit Comet”) may be behind them, the team will now begin sharing their results and experience with K-12 students and the broader community.

Ellen Longmire, an AEM professor and adviser to this year’s team, said NASA’s Microgravity University is a good opportunity for undergraduates.

“The program gives students great experience at working on a practical engineering project with a research orientation,” she said. “It also allows students to visit and experience the environment at NASA Johnson Space Center where they can interact directly with NASA engineers and astronauts.”

Student participation each year is made possible by generous financial support from AEM alumnus Dick DeLeo (1946 B.S., 1948 M.S.).  The students also applied for and were supported by UROP grants from the University of Minnesota.

The students were assisted in design and fabrication of the facility by Dave Hultman and Mario Costello of the EECS Machine Shop.
Students interested in participating in NASA’s Microgravity University should visit

View photos from members of the team experiencing microgravity at


(Courtesy of JSC/Reduced Gravity Office)

Scenes from the experience

Last Modified: Wednesday, 22-Aug-2012 11:21:12 CDT -- this is in International Standard Date and Time Notation