JoshuaColwell

UCF Research Flies Aboard 1st Virgin Galactic Space Flight

By: Robert H. Wells on

Virgin Galactic launched its first rocket into spaceship today carrying a crew of two along with NASA-supported research projects, including one from the University of Central Florida.

“It’s always exciting when you have something about to go up on a rocket,” said Joshua Colwell, a UCF physics professor whose research was aboard the flight. NASA’s Flight Opportunities program purchased flight services, the accommodation and ride, from Virgin Galactic for Colwell’s payload and three other technologies.

“This is the kind of experiment you can’t really do on the ground,” he said. “So, it’s always exciting and a privilege to collect data like this from a high-quality free fall environment like you get from one of these suborbital vehicles.”

Colwell said he is eagerly awaiting retrieving the experiment.

The experiment, known as Collisions Into Dust Experiment, or COLLIDE, tested how dust particles ranging in size from about a tenth of a millimeter to about 2 centimeters behave in microgravity, which was achieved when the craft left Earth’s atmosphere.

“We’re shooting an impactor into a simulated asteroid surface very slowly in a microgravity environment and observing what happens,” Colwell said.

He said the motions of the impactor and any dust particles knocked off the surface would be tracked with high frame-rate video.

The findings could help scientists better understand what will happen if astronauts or robotic landers were to work on the surface of a small asteroid.

“This has applications for NASA’s plans for exploration of asteroids, with robotic explorers as well as astronauts in the future, because those objects have very weak gravity,” Colwell said. “And if you are trying to sample them, place a lander on them or place an anchor on the surface, any slight disturbance to that surface could cause debris to go flying up because it’s not held down strongly by gravity.”

The flying debris could contaminate equipment and create safety concerns.

The experiment rode aboard the VSS Unity, a Virgin Galactic spaceplane that was launched from its mothership WhiteKnightTwo before flying to its top altitude and then gliding back down to a runway on Earth. The altitude it reached Thursday was more than 270,000 feet. It launched from Mojave Air and Space Port, in Mojave, California.

The experiment supports the graduate research of Stephanie Jarmak, a doctoral student in UCF’s physics department. Jarmak watched the launch from the spaceport.

“It’s been an amazing honor to be out here representing the Center for Microgravity Research and UCF,” Jarmak said. “We’re feeling pretty nervous, but excited waiting to get access to our payload off the spaceship. This data contributes directly to my Ph.D. thesis, so I have my fingers crossed. I’ve never been this close to a launch before.”

Co-principal investigator on the research is Adrienne Dove, an assistant professor in UCF’s physics department and a member of UCF’s Planetary Sciences Group. Although she wasn’t able to attend the launch, she followed it on Twitter.

“This is a huge success – two more Americans get their wings for getting to space, and there were NASA-supported payloads aboard,” Dove said. “We’ve been waiting a really long time for this, so it’s a huge sense of relief that it flew. We’re looking forward to seeing the data.”

Colwell has now had six experiments flown into space, including on space shuttle flights and payloads to the International Space Station.

The research was funded by NASA, UCF and Space Florida.

Colwell is a member of the UCF Planetary Sciences Group and is the assistant director of the Florida Space Institute. He received his doctorate in astrophysical, planetary and atmospheric sciences from the University of Colorado at Boulder and his bachelor of science in physics from Stetson University. He joined UCF in 2006.

Dove received her doctorate in astrophysics and planetary science from the University of Colorado-Boulder and her bachelor of science in physics from the University of Missouri. She joined UCF in 2012.

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