As astronauts launch into space, they go from feeling the Earth’s gravitational pull to an experience of weightlessness, also known as Zero-Gravity (Zero-G). While floating in space, astronauts get to research and conduct experiments, but in the process, they sort of become what we Earthlings call ‘clean freaks’ - at least when it comes to dust.
The New Horizons Governor’s School for Science and Technology (GSST) in Hampton, Va., is helping to shake off the dust.
GSST is one of 14 schools across the country selected to participate in the High school students United with NASA to Create Hardware (HUNCH) Extreme Science Program, based at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. As part of the program, GSST students will develop an autonomous robot that could remove dust from surfaces aboard the ISS as well as other space vehicles. Select students will fly with components of their project onboard the Zero Gravity Corporation's G-Force One plane in April at Ellington Field in Houston.
Before getting to fly like superman, the students prepped for their Zero-G experiment by speaking live with STS-131 Discovery astronaut Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, who told the class more about her experience in space and the challenges she faced.
“How difficult was it to adapt to life in space?” asked 12th-grade GSST student, Chris Feigh.
“Going from One-G to Zero-G didn’t agree with my stomach completely so I spent the first day every couple of hours throwing up and that wasn’t a lot of fun,” Metcalf-Lindenburger said. “I woke up the next morning and I felt great! It was awesome to live up there.”
“It’s really great since the astronauts are the only people that get to go in Zero-G, and we are making something for Zero-G,” said Grant Gibson, a GSST senior. “Getting feedback from someone who is actually in that environment instead of just guessing or estimating what it’s like is much better.”
During the live chat, Metcalf-Lindenburger gave the students new direction, re-emphasizing the importance of working on a project revolved around dust.
“The students read about the different complaints that the astronauts had and a lot of the astronauts were complaining about dust,” said NASA aerospace engineer, Adam Ben Shabat. “It accumulates and can cause allergic reactions. It also requires astronauts to take time off their experiments for cleaning. When they build their robot, it will be very beneficial to NASA and its astronauts as well as for future missions into deep space.”
The HUNCH team divided into three small teams to design, build and test the “CleanBot,” which will serve as a labor-saving dust collector that may eventually be used by astronauts aboard the ISS.
“Often, dust accumulates on critical surfaces and in internal crevices of the ship equipment, often inaccessible or otherwise difficult to clean,” explained Jordan Estep, GSST communications team lead. “It will be time and energy saving to implement an alternate cleaning method.”
This year’s microgravity test will be conducted by the first team, who is responsible for measuring preload and pull-off forces of state of the art dry adhesives to compare adhesion performance in a Zero-G environment versus a terrestrial environment. The dry adhesive, modeled after the clinging ability of Gecko feet, will attach the crawling CleanBot to the surface as it cleans.
Next year, the second team will study adhesive behaviors in microgravity by applying forces in normal and lateral directions using a mobile prototype of CleanBot. Building on the experiences from the first two teams, team three will provide conceptual designs for a fully functioning CleanBot in order to construct and test it in future years.
Each team will take what they learned from Metcalf-Lindenburger and apply it to their current HUNCH project and future careers.
“I really encourage you to choose a career in science, technology, engineering, and math because we need talented scientists in our workforce,” Metcalf-Lindenburger said to the students. “If you’re literate and speak the language and you understand the concept, you’re going to go really far. I hope you’ve enjoyed working on the project and that you continue to pursue your dreams.”
NASA's Langley Research Center