Rhodes Physics Experiment on “Weightless Wonder” is a Success

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Publication Date: 8/28/2006


John Janeski ′07 (left) and Sean Quinn ′06

Rhodes seniors Kevin Andring and John Janeski and Rhodes 2006 graduates  Desmond Campbell, Daniel Keedy, and Sean Quinn recently completed a physics experiment on a C-9B NASA aircraft called the “Weightless Wonder.” The flights took place at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, over the Gulf of Mexico August 17 and August 18. Rhodes physics professors Dr. Brent Hoffmeister, Dr. Shubho Banerjee, and Dr. Ann Viano advised the team.

“Being weightless was an incredible experience and definitely something I can someday tell my grandchildren about,” says Janeski. “This opportunity probably changed my career path. Before entering the NASA facility, I wanted to work for a major automobile company as a design engineer. After touring the NASA facilities and meeting an incredible array of people involved with NASA, I have discovered that NASA is probably the best place for me because they have projects in so many different areas.”

The Rhodes experiment selected by NASA for the flight is titled “Orbital Dynamics of Electrically Charged Spheres,” and it afforded students the opportunity to complete an entire research experiment from grant proposal to final presentation. The experiment tested whether a purely electrostatic orbit could be achieved between two charged spheres.

Explains Janeski, “The theory behind this is that there are two similar laws in physics -- one that determines how the planets orbit the sun using the force of gravity and another that says that two charged bodies should also orbit each other using an electrostatic force.  However, only the gravitational law has been demonstrated on a macroscopic level.  In our experiment, we achieved several complete electrostatic orbits.  This makes us the first group to ever achieve this feat.”  Data was collected by video cameras and studied using motion analysis software.

“The joy of having nearly a year’s worth of hard work pay off was overwhelming. Knowing that our theoretical models accurately predicted the voltages, speeds, and distances all at the same time was immensely gratifying,” says Kevin Andring. “Flying with NASA on the Weightless Wonder has given me the opportunity of a lifetime. Very few people in the world get to experience a sustained weightless environment, let alone perform an experiment while there.”

However, Andring adds, working in the microgravity environment is much more challenging than the astronauts make it look. “It’s physically exhausting to work in a constantly changing environment especially when what’s changing is your weight. One moment you weigh 0 pounds and few seconds later you weigh 300 pounds. A special thanks to Professors Hoffmeister and Banerjee for their expert advice, as well as our technical assistant Glen Davis for all his valuable time in the shop.”