Public Release: 

U-M Students' Microgravity Experiment On Space Shuttle

University of Michigan

ANN ARBOR---On Thursday (Dec. 3), when Space Shuttle Endeavour blasts off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., its payload will include an experiment designed and built by University of Michigan students. The launch is scheduled for 4 a.m.

Endeavour's main mission is to begin construction of an International Space Station that is expected to be completed in 2004. Carrying a U.S.-made connecting module called Unity, the shuttle will rendezvous with Zarya, a Russian-built command and control module that was placed in orbit on Nov. 24. During space walks, astronauts will attach the modules to one another.

The astronauts will also be responsible for starting and stopping the U-M experiment, known as VORTEX (short for Vortex Ring Transit Experiment).

VORTEX is the result of thousands of hours of work over a four-year period by more than 60 U-M College of Engineering students from the Department of Aerospace Engineering and the College's Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, as well as the College's Space Physics Research Laboratory.

The experiment is designed to answer some basic questions about fluid atomization, the process by which a liquid is converted into tiny droplets. The microgravity environment of the orbiting Space Shuttle will allow a closer look at the physics of the process because the students will be able to generate larger atomized droplets than are possible on Earth.

The main components of the experiment---all contained in a special canister---are a fluid test cell system, a laser-based illumination system, a digital imaging system, and a computer-based data acquisition and control system.

Data collected by VORTEX could one day be applied to problems ranging from the atomization of fuel for internal combustion engines to the manufacturing of microdroplets for drug delivery.

Students have managed all aspects of the project, from fund-raising to technical issues. Sven Bilen, who recently earned his doctoral degree in engineering, was the student leader. John Korsakas, who graduated with a degree in electrical engineering, oversaw computer and control systems. Aerospace engineering Prof. Luis P. Bernal served as faculty adviser for the effort, as well as liaison between the student team and NASA.

VORTEX has already paid substantial educational dividends. "In addition to the important physics questions to be answered, we have learned how to work with industry, academia, and government," said Bilen. "We have gained valuable, hands-on experience with a real-world engineering project."

Last August, the students delivered VORTEX to NASA personnel at Kennedy Space Center, and participated in the process of integrating their experiment with the space shuttle mission. A year earlier, three of the students traveled to Johnson Space Center in Texas to test VORTEX in near-weightless conditions aboard the same KC-135A research aircraft seen in the movie Apollo 13 and used to train NASA astronauts.

Sponsors of the U-M VORTEX experiment include: General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, IOTech, Michigan Space Grant Consortium, Microsoft, MINCO Corp., Nematron Co., Sears, Tektronix, TRW, Utica Engineering, Utica Printing, U-M Engineering Council, and U-M Student Assembly.

VORTEX is part of NASA's Get Away Special (GAS) Program, which allows individuals and organizations of all countries to fly small scientific or engineering payloads on a Space Shuttle at relatively low cost ($10,000 for U.S. educational organizations, $27,000 for other U.S. and foreign payloads.) The experiments must weigh less than 200 pounds and fit inside a standard 5.0-cubic-foot GAS canister manufactured by NASA.


EDITORS: Interviews can be arranged by contacting Janet Harvey-Clark of the U-M College of Engineering at (734)647-7087. Alternate media contact: Mark Holoweiko, Stony Point Communications, 800-672-0123.

Additional details, diagrams, and photos are available on the VORTEX and NASA Web sites at:

University of Michigan
412 Maynard St. Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1399
December 1, 1998 (1)
Contact: Janet Harvey-Clark
Phone: (734) 647-7087


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