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Engineers Play Catch in the Sky


Left to right: Sahara Hernandez, Meghan Irving, Diana Larry, Elyse Steiner, and their robotic arm

They call themselves Team Catch, but it’s actually a robotic arm that will do the catching this week when four engineering students conduct experiments in minimum gravity aboard a NASA airplane.

The student team traveled to Houston for ten days beginning March 19 to participate in the Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program at NASA. The program invites students from about 50 American educational institutions to fly on a KC-135 aircraft in flight patterns designed to minimize gravity inside the plane.

The so-called Zero-G program gives students the opportunity to conduct research in a near-weightless setting. Students experience simulated weightlessness for about 30 seconds during the descent portion of each flight. Each outing will consist of about 20 such patterns, called "parabolas."

Meghan Irving ’07, Sahara Hernandez ’07, Diana Larry ’08, and Elyse Steiner ’07 will test their robot’s abilities to track and catch a ball in microgravity. The robot will use web cameras to establish a field of vision, then will use information collected from the cameras’ tracking system to estimate the trajectory of a thrown ball. As students make adjustments, the robot will eventually be able to catch the ball consistently, according to the students’ plan.

Before they get to that point, though, they will spend a few days at NASA preparing, assembling the robot’s parts and undergoing testing for the flights.

“We will be going through a whole day of physical and medical preparation to ensure that we understand what our bodies will experience in microgravity,” explained Hernandez before departing.

What their bodies will experience can be temporarily stressful. The first parabola, as the flights are called, will likely surpass the thrill of the wildest amusement park ride, but by the tenth parabola, motion sickness will steal away the thrill. Then, typically, the body gradually adjusts to the sensation for the remaining arcs.

In addition to developing their problem-solving skills, the students have gained computer programming expertise, as well as technical writing practice and experience using machinery to build their robot, says Hernandez. When they return, the team will present their findings at Smith and will submit a final report to the NASA program. They also plan to participate in outreach programs, such as presenting their project to local students, to help educate potential younger engineers through their experience.

“We hope to get others as excited about the program as our team, to be able to encourage more girls and females to pursue a field in the sciences,” said Hernandez.



3/19/07   By Eric Sean Weld
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