Like most of us, the NASA Science Officer aboard the International Space Station looks forward to Saturday mornings.
"Saturday is when we have a bit of free time," said Dr. Don Pettit, the NASA Space Station Science Officer on the Expedition Six crew. While some of the crew read books, play musical instruments or watch movies, "I prefer to do 'Saturday Morning Science' fun experiments of my own design," Pettit said.
One recent Saturday, Pettit prepared a solution of water, soap and glycerin, and fashioned a bubble-wand from thin wire. "I wanted to see what thin films and bubbles might do in zero gravity and felt it was a topic ripe for discovery," he said.
Next, Pettit injected some tiny mica flakes into the film, allowing him to observe otherwise-hidden flows and swirls. "Then I blew on the film, and fascinating patterns emerged. These tracer particle patterns lasted for well over four hours, he said."
These films highlight the value of space for fundamental research in fluid physics. Gravity-driven convection and three-dimensional motions complicate fluid flow on Earth. A two-dimensional film of weightless water is a splendid research tool that could yield valuable data for many industries on Earth.
Pettit has also taken still pictures of cities at night, obtaining very high-resolution images, and observed noctilucent or "night-shining" clouds, rare and not fully understood atmospheric phenomena. "Over the past few weeks we've been enjoying outstanding views of these clouds above the southern hemisphere," Pettit remarked during a NASA TV broadcast.
Pettit is a long-time noctilucent cloud-watcher. As a staff scientist at the Los Alamos, N.M. National Laboratory between 1984 and 1996, he studied noctilucent clouds that were seeded by high-flying sounding rockets. "Seeing these kinds of clouds [from space] ... is certainly a joy for us on the Space Station," he said. Pettit intends to continue his Saturday Science activities until his return home in early May.
"Observations of nature, no matter how seemingly arcane, are like peeling off one more layer from the great onion of knowledge, tickling your imagination with what you have found but always revealing yet another tantalizing layer underneath," Pettit said. "I hope we never get to the core."
A video of Pettit conducting his Saturday Science experiments will be shown on NASA Television at noon EST, Wednesday, March 19, 2003.
Pettit's Saturday Science videos and written observations are available on the Internet at: http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/station/crew/exp6/spacechronicles.html
Information about NASA scientific research, including Pettit's, is available on the Internet at:http://science.nasa.gov
For information about research on the International Space Station on the Internet, visit: http://scipoc.msfc.nasa.gov
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