UF students busy perfecting softball-size satellite


Space shuttle Atlantis sits on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral on Wednesday. UF students will soon embark on a NASA program designed to simulate microgravity.

Rayiaz Khan/Correspondent
Published: Wednesday, June 1, 2011 at 4:38 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 1, 2011 at 11:28 p.m.

University of Florida students are testing an experiment while testing their stomachs at NASA's Microgravity University.

Six students left Wednesday for the program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Undergraduate students from around the U.S. competed to participate in the program. They'll be carrying out experiments aboard NASA's C-9 aircraft, nicknamed the "vomit comet," which is used to simulate weightlessness for astronaut training.



"It's like skydiving inside of an airplane," said Sheldon Clark, one of the UF participants.

The aircraft flies through parabolic loops to simulate a lack of gravity. The UF students will be testing a control-movement gyroscope in the environment, preparing for its use in a small satellite called SwampSAT. UF graduate students are designing the satellite, a little bigger than a softball, with plans for its launch next year

As the space shuttle program winds down, small satellites are seen as a cheaper and faster way to conduct orbiting space missions. Small satellites have the advantage of being able to piggy-back a ride into orbit on rockets, said Clark, 22, who recently earned his undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering at UF and plans to return for graduate studies.

The satellites have been built by school groups and provide access to space that previously wasn't available, he said.

"It's kind of like citizen science," Clark said.

The device being tested at Microgravity University is believed to be the smallest of its kind. It allows the UF satellite to be pointed in a specific direction. Such a capability could have use for the military or in applications such as weather satellites, said Norman Fitz-Coy, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering working with the students.

While a large satellite stays in one place, Fitz-Coy said multiple smaller satellites can provide additional pieces of information from other locations.

"It's not replacing them (the larger satellites), it's providing a different role," he said.

The UF students testing the gyroscope, part of the Small Satellite Design Club, will spend 10 days in Houston for the program. They'll make two flights over two days next week. Three students will be on each flight, which makes around 30 loops and provides about 25 seconds of microgravity each time.

Only one other UF group has participated in Microgravity University since its inception in 1995, although a second UF group is slated to take part in a subsequent week. Michael Harbin, a 21-year-old mechanical engineering major, said he's looking forward to the experience as preparation for a future career.

"My life goal is to go to space," he said. "This is just a step closer."

He said he doesn't typically get motion sickness, but his goal is not embarrassing himself in front of NASA. While Clark said it might not seem like the best idea to do multiple nose dives aboard a plane, he's hopeful that the experiment will help allow for greater access to space for research.

"It really opens the door," he said.

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