Global scientific community dropping in on QUT

Thursday, 14 June, 2007

Scientists from NASA, Europe and Australia are expected to visit the Queensland University of Technology's Carseldine campus later this year, at the completion of the southern hemisphere's only microgravity tower.

The microgravity tower, or "drop-tower', will allow scientists to study samples in a reduced-gravity environment.

The tower's abilities will interest many fields including nanomaterials, new materials, fire-safety, metallurgy, biotechnology and combustion.

The tower's designer, Associate Professor Ted Steinberg of QUT's School of Engineering Systems, said that when it was finished the tower would be one of only three or four such facilities in the world and would make QUT a global leader in research on the effects of gravity.

"Already the microgravity tower has attracted research partners in both industry and government from several places in Europe and the USA," Steinberg said.

"One important proposed research program relates to supporting the development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) that will replace the Space Shuttle."

The 30 m tower works by placing the experimental material inside a "drop capsule' that, when dropped from the top of the tower, allows the experiment to be in free fall (or zero gravity) for two seconds, enough time for scientists to make crucial observations about the phenomena being studied.

"The drop capsule is brought to rest on an inflated airbag that allows the experiment to be slowed down and readied for another drop," Steinberg said. "Scientists are able to analyse the result when the drop is completed." The microgravity tower would provide a cheap alternative to the usual methods of zero-gravity testing.

"To do this type of research without a microgravity tower is often extremely expensive and time consuming because researchers have to send their experiment into space on a space shuttle or use a 'vomit comet', a NASA jet that changes altitude rapidly, to negate gravity's effects," he said.

"Researchers can pay huge fees to run an experiment that weighs just several kilograms in the space shuttle whereas the QUT facility will cost far less per drop. We can also perform many drops per day and the experimental system being used can weigh hundreds of kilograms and be quite large."

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