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UCF students to ride 'vomit comet' courtesy of NASA


Shown here (l-r): Brad Hoover, Samuel Benjamin and Chris Tiller working together in the lab.

ORLANDO-Flying at zero gravity is usually something reserved for astronauts in training, but Conway resident and UCF junior Samuel Benjamin, along with five other UCF students, will get the chance to do so in June, courtesy of NASA.

NASA selected UCF's team to run an experiment aboard a parabolic flight as part of its undergraduate student Instrumentation Program. Since getting the green light late last year, the team has been hard at work turning the project from concept to design to working prototype. The students have to meet a summer deadline in order to keep their slot on a specially designed plane that astronauts use to train. It's often referred to as the vomit comet, because it is not for those with weak stomachs.

Benjamin, a photonics sciences and engineering major, is working on making sure the experiment collects clean, reliable data and then helping interpret the data once the flight is over. 

How did Benjamin get involved in this project? Getting his educational start at Hebrew Day School, Benjamin was eager to get his foot in the door of undergraduate research in astrophysics. He is interested in exoplanets-planets orbiting other stars.

The experiment will study the sticking and gradual buildup of small particles onto a larger body in a vacuum and in microgravity to better understand particle interactions in protoplanetary disks and in planetary ring systems.

What's that mean? "I'll sum up the astrophysics jargon," Benjamin said. "It is universally accepted in the field-and has been seen with powerful telescopes-that newly born stars trap immense amounts of gas and dust in their gravitational pull. Most of this ends up orbiting in a disk-shape around the star, and this is what we call a 'protoplanetary disk.' This is what our solar system was like in its earliest stages-no planets, asteroids, etc.-just gas, dust made of metals and other solid matter-not your typical household dust, and ice orbiting the sun. What's clear is that this dust and ice stuck together somehow and snowballed over millions of years into the familiar planets and other large bodies we see today. This snowballing is the 'gradual buildup of small particles,' and physicists consider it important because it's not only the driving force behind planetary formation, but it's also important in star formation and the interactions between particles in ring systems like Saturn's."

Co-teammate and only non-engineering or physics major on the team, Sara Lane, put it this way: "We're studying collisions in space environments that can't easily be studied on earth. What we learn may be important in understanding how Saturn's rings formed."

This research, in short, will help researchers better understand how the universe was formed.

"The issue our research is looking to resolve is how to re-create this environment and study it in detail," Benjamin explained.

Why will they go into the vomit comet to gather this information? "It's impossible to re-create this kind of system while on the earth's surface, where our planet's gravity by far overpowers the smaller forces believed to be involved with this snowballing process," Benjamin said. "A cost-effective (and fun) way to overcome this is by running our experiment on a vomit comet. Modeling this space environment also means that air can't be around in our cloud of dust, which is why we're putting this dust cloud in vacuum-sealed tubes. We will be launching marble-sized spheres through these dust clouds at various speeds and watching to see what sticks to this sphere and why."

What does the team hope to discover? "We are hoping the results will show what conditions are or aren't ideal for the snowballing effect to happen. Each experiment will start and end on the order of seconds, which is only a snapshot in time compared to the hundreds of millions of years required for planets to take shape. Nonetheless, taking this snapshot is a step toward defining the physics that helped make our solar system the place it is today," Benjamin further explained.

Other members of the team include Allyson Whitaker, an aerospace engineering major in her junior year whose focus is on planetary science. She is in charge of the materials that will be placed in the experiment and making sure they stay safe and secure and can execute as designed. 

Team leader, Kelly Lai is an aerospace engineering major in her senior year. She is helping with the design of one of the payloads in the experiment as well as the storage-rack structure of the experiment.

Christopher Tiller, a physics major in his third year, always envisioned himself creating video games, but in high school some "great teachers" exposed him to the world of physics. 

Brad Hoover, an aerospace engineering major in his senior year, is in charge of turning the team's computer-assisted designs into hardware.

UCF professor Joshua Colwell is faculty mentor, principal investigator for the project. He and UCF scientist Adrienne Dove are helping the students by offering guidance and being a sounding board for ideas and frustrations. Colwell and Dove are both experienced parabolic fliers who will fly with the students during their four-flight campaign.

"This is a talented and motivated group of students," Colwell said. "They are working well together and getting terrific hands-on experience in real-world space experimentation. I can't wait to see it all come to fruition in June and watch their faces as they experience weightlessness for the first time."

Experiencing weightlessness and studying astrophysics aren't Benjamin's only interests. He is also a gifted musician who played at the New York's Carnegie Hall before enrolling at UCF.

Benjamin was very involved with music from early childhood to the end of high school. "My family is a musical bunch, and I ended up learning drums and carrying that over to my high school's concert band and marching band. It was there that I learned how to read music and play all sorts of percussion instruments, ranging from marimbas to timpani and many awesome instruments in between," he shared.

His band director arranged for the school's band to play at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Today, music is on the back burner as Benjamin is focusing on this research and working toward a bachelor's degree in photonic sciences and engineering.

"But I still get together with friends and play the drum set for some great jam sessions on occasion; music will always hold a special place in my life," he was quick to add.

Plans for the future for Benjamin include travel, work and living abroad. While he hasn't decided yet what he'll specialize in after getting his degree, he's leaning toward telescope instrumentation or laser engineering for augmented reality, such as products like Google Glass.

Benjamin and his family are members of Congregation of Reformed Judaism, where he was a bar mitzvah. He plans to take a birthright trip to Israel. "I've heard that it's a fantastic experience, and it seems like a great way to start gaining some worldly experience beyond the States," he said.


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