Out of This World Experiments at St. Ursula Academy

Six physics students at St. Ursula Academy were part of a joint STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education program run by NASA and Portland State University (PSU). The program, named CELERE 2013 (Capillary Effects on Liquids Exploratory Research Experiments) gives students in grades 5-12 an opportunity to participate in microgravity research on capillary action, through experiments similar to those conducted on the International Space Station.

The students each learned to use a 2D CAD program, DraftSight, to diagram capillary channels and test a hypothesis about how the liquid will behave in the channels in microgravity. They submitted their drawings and PSU students manufactured the experiment hardware using the drawings and a computer-controlled laser.

The science behind it all
A quick reacting silicon oil (with low viscosity) is used in the University’s Dryden Drop Tower. The experiments’ models are dropped down a 22-meter shaft and they behave as if there is very little gravity. It is easy to see and study capillary effects in such an environment where there is free fall, which replicates the gravitational environment on the Space Station.

Teacher Jackie Kane explains, “There is almost as much gravity in the Space Station. It is only that the Space Station is also falling toward the Earth like the experiment and therefore we see the effect of weightlessness. The Space Station is moving horizontally very fast so that as it falls, it moves away from the Earth horizontally in a straight line, resulting in a constant distance from Earth (i.e. orbit).”

The benefit for students
The project is strongly tied to new STEM and core curriculum at the all-girls school. Students are encouraged to create open-ended inquiry based experiments, and senior Alysse Budd was pleased to participate. “I really enjoyed how easy it was for
the participants to create their own experiments to be tested. I found it very cool to be able to submit my experiment to be tested by NASA through this program.”

The CELERE program is a BETA program, designed to offer American students the opportunity to experimentally explore the properties of space while they remain on Earth. It takes the place of earlier programs that were eliminated due to cutbacks in NASA funding.