June 20, 2016

Purdue experiment aboard Blue Origin suborbital rocket a success

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. —An experiment by Purdue University professor Steven Collicott, Ph.D., ended with success aboard the first suborbital rocket research flight by private company Blue Origin.

Collicott, a professor in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics of the College of Engineering, is one of three scientists asked by Blue Origin to work with the private company as it tested and perfected its suborbital rocket design.

An experiment by Collicott testing the physics of liquid movement in zero-gravity situations was carried in the payload of Sunday's (June 19) rocket, which took off from a private location in Texas.

He was there to see the launch.

"I'm excited to be launching and to see the fluid physics happening in real spaceflight," Collicott said.

This payload flew on-board Blue Origin's New Shepard space vehicle. The suborbital rocket flew through the middle atmosphere, an altitude of 31 miles to 62 miles known as the mesosphere and lower thermosphere. The New Shepard vertical takeoff and vertical landing vehicle is capable of carrying hundreds of pounds of payloads per flight and will ultimately carry six astronauts to altitudes beyond 100 kilometers, the internationally recognized boundary of space.  

The experiment successfully tested details of the physics of zero-gravity wicking – the movement of liquid from one location to another inside a container. Wicking is only relevant in small lengths on Earth.

"It's a different world in zero gravity where a satellite fuel tank might be 10 feet tall and 3 feet across. Wicking is the dominant force on the liquid fuel," Collicott said. "So how do you control it or how do you know where it's going to sit? How do you move it from one place to another?

"These are topics which still require additional research even 50 years into the Space Age to aid in designing better, cheaper and more dependable space vehicles," he said.

Understanding wicking in zero gravity is important in designing systems such as life support that involves water and air.

"You either want to keep the liquid somewhere or move it somewhere," Collicott said. "You don’t want your design to be indecisive, so to speak."

The experiment initially was built with National Science Foundation funding and help from the College of Engineering. Since then, undergraduate students in Collicott's Zero-Gravity Flight Experiment class at Purdue have worked on the experiment hardware.

For the experiment, diode panels illuminated a sphere inside a bolted-down box in the rocket. Mirrors and cameras were used to record liquid moving along a plastic vane, determining how big a gap between the vane and the wall of the sphere keeps the liquid in place and how small a gap causes the liquid to move along.

This payload was part of Blue Origin's Pathfinder Payloads program, demonstrating the integration and operation of scientific experiments during untended test flights of the New Shepard system to high altitudes.

With Sunday's rocket flight a success, Collicott is looking forward to the next opportunity. That could come later this year. He is working with Maggie Samudio's second-grade class at Cumberland Grade School in West Lafayette to find out if fireflies can light up in space.

"We are delighted to be working with Dr. Collicott to explore the full range of educational experiences available on New Shepard, from K-12 outreach to Ph.D.-level research," said Rob Meyerson, Blue Origin's president.

Collicott said he also has a quote for another research experiment proposal submitted to Blue Origin.

"Companies like Blue Origin who are developing this suborbital research capability in fully reusable rockets are bringing down the cost of space flight experimentation so much that all kinds of things can use space as a laboratory," Collicott said. "It's small small fraction of the cost of old-fashioned NASA and European Space Agency sounding rockets."

The experiment's results are just as important on Earth as they are in space. Collicott said the ever-increasing miniaturization of analytical systems for health care and the optimization of one type of automotive fuel cell are among the possible uses for his work.

"It's nice to know you can impact a lot of things on Earth, too," he said. 

Writer: Brian L. Huchel, 765-494-2084, bhuchel@purdue.edu 

Sources: Steven Collicott, 765-494-2339, collicott@purdue.edu

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