UCF Takes Space Exploration to the Next Level

Graduate student Laura Seward takes the “Warp Core” for a spin as the device drops a glass marble into a cup of simulated moon dust to demonstrate how craters are formed.

With a new set of eyes peering out upon the landscape of UCF’s space program, Alan Stern’s appointment as the new director of the Florida Institute is only one in a series of exciting events taking place at the university.

Dr. Josh Colwell, associate professor in the physics department, has his own team of graduate students looking into simulating particle collision to determine how protoplanetary dust is formed.

“UCF is well positioned to become a major player in space exploration. We have this high quality environment where we can involve students from the early stages on through flight,” said Colwell.

With him, students Mackenzie Campbell, Chris Vamos, Nico Brown, and Amanda Stevenson will be along for the ride as their experiment, called “Prime,” takes to the stars this month.

“Prime” stands for “Physics of Regolith Impacts in Microgravity Experiment.”

The team won’t exactly make it so far beyond the gravitational pull of the planet, as this force is just the tool they need in order to determine if their device is ready for space. The team will have less than 45 seconds during each of the 25 parabolas the Boeing 727 will make in November.

“Prime” will be tested in Zero-G, as any experiments conducted in the lab are subject to Earth’s One-G of gravity, which is an entirely different environment from that of space.

Laura Seward, who is in her second year of working with the research group is running tests on Colwell’s “Warp Core,” named after the main energy reactor from the spaceships of “Star Trek.”

The term “Zero-G isn’t exactly accurate,” said Seward. “Everything that we’re feeling right now, that’s One-G, but anything in orbit is in free fall. It’s almost like being on a roller coaster.”

As a result of Seward’s tests on the “Warp Core,” she’s determined that if we were to plan a trip to Mars in the near future, the impact our landing would have upon the planet’s surface would create a crater too large to climb out of, thus obstructing further research from taking place.

Space exploration is directed by the hands of government funding, no longer, as UCF has proven in taking Space Institute director Alan Stern on board, after he resigned from NASA.

“I think his experience as executive administrator at NASA will certainly help with preparing competitive proposals for students who want to do work in the area of space exploration,” said MJ Soileau, vice president for research and commercialization.

Aside from “Prime,” Colwell’s team is also working on is a project called “The Little Bang.” Using only manual parts, the device sends spring-loaded marbles into a bed of regolith contained in a vacuum in space.

Amanda Stevenson, who’s overseeing the work of lab students, said, “It’s like a mix between foosball and pinball, we want to see what will happen when launched into free float. What do they do?”

Planets, comets, meteors, stars, and even the rings around Saturn have all formed over
time as a collection of different dust particles become attracted, collide, and stick together.

“Prime,” up, out of its case and ready to be tweaked.

Chris Vamos who is a graduate working on building steel cases to house the “Prime” device said that the ejecta that falls on the area surrounding the point of impact from a comet or a meteor is “in layman’s terms, ‘moon dust.’ ” This is the simulated regolith the team is using to determine just how planets were formed after the Big Bang, among other experiments.

By recording the action on a high-powered camera, this “dirt ball fight” as Stevenson called it, will simulate the formation of our universe over 4.6-4.5 billion years ago.

“Small particles orbiting the forming Sun stuck together to grow and eventually make planets,” Colwell explains. “We understand how small particles stick together, the same way dust sticks to your television or computer screen, and very large objects can stick together with gravity. We’re going to explore that intermediate stage between dust and mountains to learn about the formation of planets.”

NASA may have cut state funding on space exploration, but that doesn’t stop UCF from launching their own experiments. The next is scheduled for lift-off from the Cape on Nov. 20.

From left to right, this is professor Colwell’s Research team: MacKenzie Campbell, Chris Vamos, Nico Brown, Amanda Stevenson, and of course Joshua Colwell.

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