A Drop in Science

Students and mentors preparing an experiment to be dropped

One. Two. Bam! Time’s up. That’s how quickly the time passes when an experiment is dropped in the 2.2 Second Drop Tower at NASA’s Glenn Research Center.

I came to Glenn, near Cleveland, Ohio, this week for the Dropping In a Microgravity Environment, or DIME, event where teams of students are conducting science experiments in the drop tower. It works just like it sounds: Experiments are dropped down a giant hole, and during the drop they experience 2.2 seconds of freefall, or microgravity.

When I first heard about this event, I couldn’t imagine what kind of scientific data could be collected in a mere 2.2 seconds. But now that I’ve seen the frame-by-frame videos that are recorded during the drops, 2.2 seconds is longer than you think. DIME program manager and NASA researcher Nancy Hall, who is helping students with their drops this week, said a lot of the experiments done in the tower have to do with liquids and combustion.

An experiment falling down the drop tower

One of the experiments dropped Tuesday was looking at how digestion is different in microgravity than in Earth gravity, which is a pretty important topic since astronauts on the International Space Station are eating and digesting food all the time. To look at this, students created a slurry of cheese crackers, applesauce, and water and placed the mixture in a syringe. During the drop the syringe contents were injected into a container of liquid. DIME coordinator Dick DeLombard said, “It’s like you ate a bunch of crackers, some applesauce and drank some water,” to which Chris Hartenstine from Glenn’s education office added, “and then fell into a hole,” much to the laughter of the students and researchers.

On the slow-motion video of the experiment during the drop, you can see the pink-colored slurry go into the liquid and sort of plume outward. Kendrick, one of the students from the Plattsburg High School team, said preliminary data showed the food mixture dissipating a lot slower in microgravity than it did during their ground tests. When we left them Tuesday, they were tweaking a few variables, such as changing the fluid level, to see if they would get different results and were dropping their experiment several more times throughout the day.

The DIME project and its sister project What If No Gravity, or WING, for middle school students, will drop a total of 30 student-made experiments in the tower in this year’s project. Check out some of the WING experiments in the WING Image Gallery

One thought on “A Drop in Science”

  1. It’s amazing the nature of the experiments that the students come up with each year. We’re anxious to see what they come up with this year!

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