Researchers from Louisiana Tech University
will be floating high above the Gulf of Mexico
this month to conduct zero-gravity testing of an experimental DNA analysis
instrument developed at Tech that could benefit future NASA astronauts.
Niel Crews, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Collin
Tranter, a graduate student with the Institute for Micromanufacturing (IfM) say
the instrument could be used to monitor the health of astronauts exposed to
cosmic radiation beyond Earth’s protective atmosphere.
“Our goal is to understand how the system behaves under conditions similar
to actual deployment in space missions,” says Crews. The Louisiana
Tech-developed devices are beneficial to NASA because they are small, consume
less power, and require little to no human operation.
The Louisiana Tech researchers will subject themselves to extreme conditions
in order to conduct sensitive testing of the miniature device. NASA has used
these same flights to train their astronauts.
The instrument attracted the attention of NASA scientists for possible use
on the International Space Station, during inter-planetary travel and even for
unmanned missions to search for life within the Solar System.
“We hope that by working with NASA, one of our DNA analysis devices will be sent
into orbit to study the effects of space environments on living things, first
studying DNA then cells,” says Tranter. “Some further testing has to occur
first, such as making sure the device works properly in low-gravity conditions.
This will be done on a parabolic aircraft flight hopefully before the end of
The tests will take place on a NASA airplane operating out of Ellington
Field at Johnson Space
Center in Houston. The flight pattern will consist of
forty steep dives and climbs over the Gulf of Mexico.
A controlled dive of nearly 10,000 ft in less than one minute will result in
approximately 20 sec of weightlessness for the researchers and the payload
onboard. An abrupt climb back to the starting altitude will create a gravitational
force twice the normal amount.
has gotten into the act, using these flights to depict weightlessness on the
silver screen. All of the zero-gravity scenes in the movie Apollo 13 were
filmed during these flights. The alternation between zero gravity and 2G forces
can so disorienting that NASA astronauts call the aircraft the “vomit comet.”
NASA recently selected this system for a week-long series of flights as part
of their Facilitated Access to the Space Environment for Technology (FAST)
program, which focuses on expanding new technologies to be used in space flight
Tranter is pursuing a PhD in Nanosystems Engineering at Louisiana Tech and
will continue to work with Crews on the project. He says they hope to learn
very soon if their device can stand up to space environments.
“Low gravity can cause all kinds of unpredictable problems,” Tranter says. “Eventually, I hope our system can reveal more about space radiation effects on
DNA and cells, leading to options for safe space travel and exploration by
humans. Our lab has studied some effects of radiation on DNA, such as UV
exposure, but nothing on Earth compares to the environments we hope to study
outside of the Earth’s atmosphere.”