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Name: Rhodes College Binary Orbit Team (RhoBOT)
Hobbies: Working with NASA, Defying Gravity
Favorite Vessel of Transportation: The Vomit Comet

There’s a rumor on campus that your group will be defying gravity this summer. Fact or fiction?

Fact. NASA has a program called Microgravity University (MU), which offers undergraduates from across the country the opportunity to propose, fly, and evaluate their own experiment performed in microgravity. Last August, Physics professor Dr. Brent Hoffmeiser asked us if we wanted to write a proposal to MU. Our answer was simple: yes. When NASA accepted the proposal in December, we were overjoyed. We were one of 40 teams from across the country whose proposals were accepted. We are not the first group of Rhodes students to be accepted to MU, however. In 2006, five Rhodes science majors attended and performed an experiment in microgravity.

What’s your experiment?

Our experiment will attempt a stable orbit between two electrically charged spheres that are about the size of ping-pong balls. The microgravity environment will minimize the effects of frictional and gravitational forces, which will allow the spheres to move freely in three dimensions. When we arrive at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, we will be working directly with NASA scientists and engineers. They will be testing the structure and safety of our apparatus to insure that it is capable of flying and taking us through basic astronaut training before we board the Vomit Comet.

What’s “The Vomit Comet?”

We will attempt our experiment in a modified C-9B airplane that has been fondly nicknamed “The Vomit Comet.” NASA prefers it to be called “The Weightless Wonder.”  The airplane is flown by NASA pilots over the Gulf of Mexico.  It ascends from 24,000 to 33,000 feet, and then drops back to 24,000 feet all in 90 seconds. During this maneuver, 25 crucial seconds of weightlessness are created, during which our team will conduct our experiment.

Certainly your team can’t do this all by yourselves.

No aspect of this opportunity would have become a reality if it were not for the Rhodes’ Physics Department. Our professors Dr. Deseree Meyer Brittingham and Dr. Hoffmeiser, the supervisors for the experiment, are incredibly knowledgeable and supportive. Glen Davis, the technical associate in the shop, is brilliant with tools and is helping us build the apparatus and fabricate other parts needed for the experiment. It is truly a collaborative effort.

How are you sharing your experiences with others?

Experiencing weightlessness is a unique opportunity. As such, we hope to share not only our project, but also our passion for the sciences with the Memphis community. Students from Central High School, for example, are directly involved in our project. They are designing their own mini-experiments, which we will take to Microgravity University to perform and videotape them in weightlessness. In the fall, we will return to Central to share the results of the mini-experiments with the students. Just like us, the students at Central High School are very enthusiastic about weightlessness on Earth. Hopefully sharing our project with them will inspire them to think about the myriad of great opportunities available in the sciences.

In our outreach programs, we hope to pass along the lessons that we learned in submitting our proposal to NASA: with enough hard work and energy, nothing is impossible.

The members of the Rhodes Binary Orbit Team are Brad Atkins ’10, Gavin Franks ’09, Joshua Fuchs ’11, Lulu Li ’11, Ben Rice ’09, Chase Sliger ’10, and Jennifer Thompson ’08.

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