Posted: May 2, 2013 at 1:46 pm

By: Sarah Cordonier, Hunter Homistek

The Microgravity Research Team debriefs with team advisor, Dr. John Kuhlman, before starting their research for the day.

The Microgravity Research Team debriefs with team advisor, Dr. John Kuhlman, before starting their research for the day.

A team of West Virginia University engineering students will battle history and microgravity this summer when they represent their school in a national NASA project designed to improve the use of high-powered computers during space travel.

The 11  students who are going to NASA this year are tasked with creating a way to cool supercomputers on board flights in outer space. Such  computers, which run rigorous programs at high speeds, generate far more heat than the average desktop computer or laptop, and thus far scientists haven’t figured out how to cool them in a microgravity environment.

This year’s group of students is the 12th WVU team chosen by NASA to participate in its annual Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program. While WVU teams have participated in the program since 2000, fewer than half of the previous WVU teams have successfully carried out an experiment and presented their findings to  officials at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

So the pressure this year is on.

“One of the bigger problems is figuring out what exactly we need to do to get the experiment working,” says Nick Underwood, team member and junior aerospace engineering student.

Under microgravity conditions, liquids that are used as coolants and that would normally behave predictably become spontaneous and erratic. So the students have to figure out a way to stabilize a liquid’s behavior and efficiently deliver it to the computer system for cooling.

“The fluid doesn’t stay put in a tank but instead will climb the walls of containers and tend to break apart,” says John Kuhlman, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at WVU who advises the microgravity research team.”

Team members prepare their experiment for the day by filling up their cooling device with water and adjusting temperature settings.

Team members prepare their experiment for the day by filling up their cooling device with water and adjusting temperature settings.

To solve this problem, the students will work to devise an experiment that will not only provide efficient cooling to a high-powered supercomputer but will do so in a microgravity environment. However, they won’t be able to test their experiment in microgravity conditions until they get to Houston, so they will have to trust past research and estimates when carrying out their practice tests.

“Some things we won’t be able to test —like how the liquid will react in microgravity —until we get there,” says Stephen Itschner, an electrical engineering and biometric systems junior.

If students can devise a successful experiment, the payoff would prove massive for the students and the scientific community as a whole. NASA could potentially use their research to cool computers in the future.

“If we find what we’re looking for… NASA can use [our findings] on future space flights,” Underwood says.

Whether or not they succeed, the students say the trip to Texas will prove worthwhile. For many of them, the experience is the culmination of a lifelong dream.

“We get to go to Johnson’s Space Center, which I’ve never done before, so that’s exciting in itself,” Underwood says. “I expect it to be a nice experience to meet kids from other schools that are involved in similar kinds of studies that we are.”

This year’s team enlisted students from a variety of backgrounds. Underwood serves as the team’s all-purpose helper, while others, such as Itschner, specialize in electrical systems that can monitor and compute results of test experiments for later review.

Members of the Microgravity Research team designed and built this device to test efficient ways to cool overheated electronics in spacecrafts.

Members of the Microgravity Research team designed and built this device to test efficient ways to cool overheated electronics in spacecrafts.

“I’ve had a lot of challenges with providing cheap and efficient power to the experiment,” Itschner says. “Also, getting the sensors together in such a way that will be accurate, precise and measurable” has been difficult.

Itschner has also been tasked with creating a data-acquisition program for the team on his own time. This program, he says, will automatically interface all of the sensors used in the team’s experiment and log the data they receive.

“We’ve put all this work into it, which is hundreds of hours of work, and one thing I’m really looking forward to is the gratification of saying, ‘Ahh, yes. We have data…and we can present our findings to the world,'” Underwood says.