Carthage Microgravity Team heads back to zero-g as MPG technology gets ready for space
March 19, 2018
For 11 straight years, the Carthage Microgravity Team has taken on NASA’s “Vomit Comet” — and its stomach-churning ups and downs — with one noble goal: To advance spaceflight technology.
Now, after 40 zero-gravity flights, 1,412 parabolas, and nearly 9 hours in zero-g, Carthage has developed a technology that has advanced straight to NASA headquarters. Next stops? The Orion/SLS Exploration Mission, powered by NASA’s huge new megarocket. The International Space Station. And then, eventually, the moon, Mars, and beyond.
A team of Carthage students traveled to Florida in March to help make sure that happens.
Celestine Ananda ’20, Nicholas Bartel ’20, Sheila Franklin ’19, Megan Janiak ’20, and Nathaniel Lee ’18 were near Kennedy Space Center March 17-24 to operate Carthage’s Modal Propellant Gauging, or MPG, experiment. Led by physics professor Kevin Crosby, they flew MPG aboard a zero-gravity aircraft as it continues extensive testing and review.
Experiencing zero-g is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it’s one Carthage students keep having again and again. This year marks the 11th year Carthage has been sending undergraduate students into zero-g to conduct research for NASA, and March’s flight week marked the College’s 39th and 40th zero-g flights. Carthage is the only college or university in the country where undergraduate students have participated in microgravity flights for 11 consecutive years.
Spinning and science in zero-g
The Carthage Microgravity Team tested their experiment in two flights aboard G-Force One, a modified Boeing 727 operated by the Zero Gravity Corporation and contracted by NASA for research flights.
The plane flies a carefully designed parabolic trajectory that resembles a roller coaster ride. It climbs to 34,000 feet, then free-falls 10,000 feet before climbing again. During climbs, passengers experience 2-g. At the top of each parabola, passengers experience about 25 seconds of zero gravity; everything on the plane becomes weightless.
NASA uses zero-g flights to train astronauts and test equipment before sending into space.
“There are no words in our language that can describe the feeling of weightlessness, nor are there experiences on Earth that are comparable to it,” says Sheila Franklin ’19, a physics major from South Milwaukee, who has now flown five times. “It’s like that feeling at the top of the roller coaster, when you lift out of your seat, but it is so much more than that. It’s freeing, but also grounding. You never realize how much you rely on gravity until it’s gone.”
MPG: Modal Propellant Gauging
The future of measuring fuel in space
First developed at Carthage in 2011, MPG is a collaboration between Carthage Space Sciences and the Advanced Cryogenics Laboratory at Kennedy Space Center. It uses acoustic vibrations to infer the amount of propellant left in a spacecraft’s fuel tank.
“We use special sensors to detect small changes in the mechanical properties of our tanks as the liquid levels in the tanks change,” Prof. Crosby explains.
Right now, there’s no way to precisely measure fuel in a zero-g environment, so all spacecraft must tow extra fuel, which industry-wide can cost tens of millions of dollars annually. “If you can shave a percent or two off the uncertainty in fuel gauging with spacecraft and satellites, that has the potential to save billions of dollars,” Prof. Crosby says. “The economic consequences of this are pretty big.”
As a result, “low-gravity fuel gauging is on the critical technology road map for NASA,” he continues. “For any sustained human presence in the cosmos or deep space missions, we will need a way to accurately gauge propellant levels in spacecraft fuel tanks.”
The Carthage technology works so well, NASA selected MPG over several competing technologies for infusion into the Orion/SLS Exploration Mission 3 (EM-3) test flight of America’s next “heavy lift” rocket.
“This is the successor to the Saturn V program that took us to the moon,” Prof. Crosby says. “We have not, as a species, gone outside of low-Earth orbit — which is nowhere, really — since we left the moon in 1973. No human has been farther away than the Space Station since then, and the Space Station is the fuzz on the top of the tennis ball.
“SLS is exciting because this will be a program of global consequence, as we return to the moon and work to travel to Mars. It’s exciting to be a small part of that.”
Payload Projects Pay Off
Years of work takes Carthage to top NASA level
MPG is not Carthage’s first venture into developing technology for NASA. The Carthage team has more than a decade of projects and five different experiments in its NASA portfolio.
When Prof. Crosby first started Carthage’s space sciences program in 2007 (with the first flight in 2008), it was about giving Carthage students valuable hands-on experience in designing, building, and operating an experiment like a NASA payload. The program originated under the NASA education initiative titled Systems Engineering Educational Discovery, or SEED. Teams from colleges across the country competed for a chance to participate, by designing and executing a specific experiment in line with NASA’s goals.
Carthage was selected in the program’s first year, and then its second. And then its third, fourth, fifth, and sixth. In fact, Carthage was one of just two colleges in the country selected for the prestigious program for all six years of its existence.
Over the years, the Carthage teams designed and built a lunar dust filtration system, analyzed propellant slosh in microgravity conditions, studied the angle of repose of lunar dust, and tested a spacecraft coolant. They conducted their research alongside researchers from Yale, MIT, Ohio State University, and other R-1 schools.
When the SEED program lost its funding in 2014, Prof. Crosby didn’t stop; he sought out other funding to continue the MPG research. He never treated the zero-g flights like fun, floating field trips. For Prof. Crosby, they were always about the science. Each experiment the Carthage students designed and flew under his leadership has since advanced to further development within NASA or with industry partners.
MPG has advanced the furthest of all. This winter, Steve Jurczyk, acting NASA Associate Administrator, called out Carthage and MPG in his plenary session at the Next Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Broomfield, Colorado, as one of NASA’s developing key technologies. This summer, Prof. Crosby will begin a sabbatical year as a senior scientist within the Advanced Technologies Branch at Kennedy Space Center and within the Orion program office at Johnson Space Center in Houston. At each center, he will work with a team of NASA engineers and scientists to bring MPG to a level of technical readiness commensurate with human spaceflight.
“This summer, we’ll be developing a version of the MPG experiment to fly on Space Station,” Prof. Crosby says.
The 2018 Team
Carthage students and alumna headed for zero-g
This year’s Microgravity Team included two first-time flyers and three students who had flown before:
- Celestine Ananda ’20, a physics and mathematics double-major from New London, Wisconsin, flew for the first time.
- Nicholas Bartel ’20, a physics major from New London, flew for the first time.
- Sheila Franklin ’19, a physics major from South Milwaukee, flew for the fifth time, having joined the team in September 2016.
- Megan Janiak ’20, a physics and chemistry major from Kenosha, is the team’s most frequent flier. This was her sixth flight.
- Nathaniel Lee ’18, a physics major from Skokie, Illinois, flew for the third time.
The Carthage students were joined by Kenosha science teacher and Carthage alumna Kristine (Krukowski) Heuser. Ms. Heuser graduated from Carthage in 2014 with a degree in biology, and minors in secondary education and broadfield social science. Ms. Heuser’s flight was funded by a grant from the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium, and subsidized by Zero Gravity Corporation. Prof. Crosby worked with Ms. Heuser to develop experiments and demonstrations for her eighth-grade students at Lance Middle School.
“The reason I started the space sciences program at Carthage over a decade ago was to bring the excitement of space research to a broader audience of students,” Prof. Crosby says. “We’ve been able to do that over the past 11 years at Carthage, Today, alumni from the Carthage Space Sciences Program are working across the industry and within NASA, and our work has led to real innovation. Now, working with middle schoolers allows us to develop that passion for space science research even sooner.”