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Sunday, 6 October 2013

One month at the ISU: Catching Up

Things have been moving quickly here at the International Space University! There have been a few assignments, teams have been working together, and I have been working hard to make sense of it all. I have been learning much, and have much yet to learn, but let's see what I've been up to lately.

This time last weekend, I was finishing up my work for an assignment, and enjoying the fact that I would have all of Sunday off to enjoy and relax. I was feeling good and happy to be productive. Over the course of the week, I continued working on the assignment with my team, and spent every evening thinking about it. A closer look at the work of countries developing space programs, my team focused on Egypt. It was an interesting experience, and I learned quite a lot about international policy, and the state of industry, policy, and politics in Egypt. The presentations were on Friday and I was very happy to get it over with. They all went well, and afterwards, most of us settled in to watching 12 Monkeys a movie I had never seen before, but now highly recommend. It's a little odd, but if you like Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, sci-fi, and time travel, you'll like this one.

I also had a chance to take a closer look at the microgravity chamber at the ISU. At first glance, it doesn't look impressive. A microwave-sized box framed with aluminum and walled with Plexiglas, it doesn't look like anything worthy of the name "microgravity test chamber". However, the setup is incredibly deceiving.

Inside the chamber, there is a wireless camera, and a wireless accelerometer. The latter is what it sounds like, a device which measures acceleration. You likely have one on your right now. Most smartphones these days include at least one accelerometer which can feel when you turn your phone on its side. These devices transmit their information to a computer which can record and display the information. The chamber has an area inside which you may place an experiment, and the chamber is affixed to the ceiling using a strong electromagnet. When the test is ready to begin, you simply push a button and the box falls from the ceiling, into a protective bin, and that's it.

Wait...that's it? How is a falling box testing microgravity? Good question.

While the box only falls for 0.45 seconds, the box and its contents experience a sense of microgravity during that time which is comparable to that experienced on the International Space Station. That's right, a box, in a lab, feels the same microgravity as a multi-billion dollar project.

How? Well, it comes down to understanding gravity. While the exact details of how gravity works are not known as of yet, we do know its effects. Gravity seems to exist anywhere this is mass, anywhere there is stuff, and the more mass there is, the larger the gravitational effect. Microgravity means what you'd think, a lack of gravity. It is not zero gravity, just very small amounts.

Scientists would measure the force of gravity in Newtons, and on Earth, it's about 9.8 Newtons, or 9.8 kg*m/s^2, causing an acceleration downward of 9.8 metres/second. A "gee" is a unit which means the amount of Earth surface-like gravity. 1 gee = 9.8 Newtons. Got it?

Well, the astronauts on the International Space Station, and the microgravity test chamber, experience about 0.01 gees of gravity. This is not due to them being farther away from the Earth, but rather due to freefall.

Remember when I talked about orbits? Well, take a look back on my blog if you don't, but the recap is that when you are successfully in orbit around an object, you are basically falling at just the right speed to constantly miss the object. I feel like I'm Woody from Toy Story saying something like, "They're not in zero gravity! They're falling, with style!"

But that's the basic idea. The astronauts and anything in orbit, are in freefall, constantly falling and missing the planet and this fall gives them the feeling that they are weightless. The same thing applies for the test chamber at the ISU. While it is falling, the accelerometer measures the feeling of gravity and records that it is very nearly zero.

The test chamber has been used for some interesting experiments and every year, the students try to think up new things to try. This was what my team was doing this week. We were tasked with trying to design two experiments which could be used to demonstrate an interesting effect under microgravity.

The experiment had to be easy, small, clean, and it had to be visual and pedagogic, as in educational. I'll have more details on that later as we're still in the working phase.

Other than that, the week's lectures were quite good. This first module is mostly review so it feels a little odd to be attending these lectures. On the one hand, it's good that I know a lot of this already. It is good to review it and it is only temporary as the next module becomes very busy. However, on the other hand, it does sometimes feel like I could be doing more with my time, but that's okay. From everything I've seen, it is simply the calm before the storm.

I've had a chance to review my skills in STK (formerly known as Satellite Tool Kit, not Systems Tool Kit), re-learned orbital mechanics and project management, learned a little about space policy, economics, and law, and had a chance to be lectured by Dr. Gilles Clement, whose work on Microgravity helped interest me in the ISU. His lectures are very entertaining as he uses movie and song clips to help emphasize his points.

For example, in one lecture about Space Psychology, Prof. Clement was describing some problems faced by astronauts and cosmonauts during some NASA-MIR missions. For these missions, NASA astronauts were living and working alongside some cosmonauts on MIR and due to their differences in culture, as well as several mechanics and bureaucratic problems, there were many problems getting along.

In order to emphasize his point, he used the movie trailer for Gladiator to point out the related examples. See if you can match them up!

  • Minimal control over schedule
  • work overload
  • social withdrawal
  • death of a family member
  • dangerous atmosphere
  • fire
  • loss of power
  • crew fiction
  • anger with ground control

In another lecture, he used Procol Harum's Whiter Shade of Pale  to outline the effects of Space Motion Sickness. Follow along and spot the similarities:

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness, disorientation
  • apathy
  • impaired concentration
  • headache
  • sweating
  • dry mouth, loss of appetite
  • salivation
  • pallor
  • nausea
Now I will never think of the trailer or that song the same way again. While all the professors here at the ISU are engaging, Clement's lectures are the most entertaining and I appreciate the effort he makes to make the material amusing.

This past weekend has been semi-productive. I went out Friday night with many of my ISU colleagues and had a really great time. However, I stayed out so late that I was not nearly as productive on Saturday as I had wished. I missed the post office hours which means I have to try again through the week. The most difficult part of time management here is that everything closes early on Saturday, if it's open at all, and nothing is really open on Sunday. Most of my work has been after school through the week so it is difficult to get other things done.

It's all a work in progress though, and I'm learning. Today, I have a team meeting to discuss as poster we are tasked with designing. Given the theme of "10 Inspiring Astronauts", we have to design a poster on A0-sized paper which will be conference-ready. It is a good exercise for us as most of us are scientists and engineers and not used to being artistic. However, one valuable thing I have learned from several artists and designers out there is the power of communication. You may have a great idea but if you are unable to share it effectively, your idea might be forgotten.

To all those at home expecting mail of some sort, I know I have been here for a month and I'm sorry that I have not sent anything yet. I am very busy and have run into a few difficulties. I have a growing stack of postcards ready to go out, and I must purchase/fill out a few more. I am waiting until I get every single one ready and then sending them all at once. Should be within the next couple of weeks.

Finally, for those usually interested in the pure science of my blog, I hope my foray into personal matters was not disagreeable. My later posts will be more academically engaging I'm sure.

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