The University Record, December 14, 1998

Space shuttle carries students’ microgravity experiment

By Janet Harvey-Clark
College of Engineering

When Space Shuttle Endeavour blasted off from Kennedy Space Center earlier this month, its payload included an experiment designed and built by U-M students.

Endeavour’s main mission is to begin construction of an International Space Station that is expected to be completed in 2004. The astronauts also are responsible for starting and stopping the U-M experiment, known as VORTEX (short for Vortex Ring Transit Experiment).

VORTEX is the result of thousands of hours of work over a four-year period by more than 60 College of Engineering students from the Department of Aerospace Engineering and the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, as well as the Space Physics Research Laboratory.

The experiment is designed to answer some basic questions about fluid atomization, the process by which a liquid is converted into tiny droplets. The microgravity environment of the orbiting space shuttle will allow a closer look at the physics of the process because the students will be able to generate larger atomized droplets than are possible on Earth.

The main components of the experiment—all contained in a special canister—are a fluid test cell system, a laser-based illumination system, a digital imaging system, and a computer-based data acquisition and control system.

Data collected by VORTEX could one day be applied to problems ranging from the atomization of fuel for internal combustion engines to the manufacturing of microdroplets for drug delivery.

Students have managed all aspects of the project, from fund-raising to technical issues. Sven Bilen, who recently earned his doctoral degree in engineering, was the student leader. John Korsakas, who graduated with a degree in electrical engineering, oversaw computer and control systems. Aerospace engineering Prof. Luis P. Bernal served as faculty adviser for the effort, as well as liaison between the student team and NASA.

VORTEX has already paid substantial educational dividends. “In addition to the important physics questions to be answered, we have learned how to work with industry, academia and government,” Bilen says. “We have gained valuable, hands-on experience with a real-world engineering project.”

Last August, the students delivered VORTEX to NASA personnel at Kennedy Space Center, and participated in the process of integrating their experiment with the space shuttle mission. A year earlier, three of the students traveled to Johnson Space Center in Texas to test VORTEX in near-weightless conditions aboard the same KC-135A research aircraft seen in the movie Apollo 13 and used to train NASA astronauts.

Sponsors of the U-M VORTEX experiment include: General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, IOTech, Michigan Space Grant Consortium, Microsoft, MINCO Corp., Nematron Co., Sears, Tektronix, TRW, Utica Engineering, Utica Printing, the U-M Engineering Council, and the U-M Student Assembly.

VORTEX is part of NASA’s Get Away Special (GAS) Program, which allows individuals and organizations of all countries to fly small scientific or engineering payloads on a Space Shuttle at relatively low cost ($10,000 for U.S. educational organizations, $27,000 for other U.S. and foreign payloads.) The experiments must weigh less than 200 pounds and fit inside a standard 5.0-cubic-foot GAS canister manufactured by NASA.


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