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Mark A. Philbrick, BYU
Krystle Farnsworth, Jacob Campbell, Nathan Powers, Matthew Turner and Justin Peatross adjust a laser used in the experiment.

PROVO — Discovery. Endeavour. Atlantis.

NASA has a long history of christening its space vehicles and projects with noble names. So it may surprise some to look down a list of NASA-sponsored projects and see the name "Vomit Comet" jump off the page.

And although it may sound like a low-budget ride in a traveling carnival, a group of Brigham Young University students who recently rode it will tell you that the Vomit Comet is, in fact, a state-of-the-art scientific tool.

Four BYU undergraduates were able to conduct research on lasers in the zero-gravity environment created by the Vomit Comet, which is a modified KC-135 transport jet that travels in a series of high-speed arcs, creating 25-second periods of weightlessness as it goes into a free fall at the top of each arc.

The jet was used in the filming of the movie "Apollo 13" but had already drawn its infamous name from its penchant for making researchers, well, you know.

That aside, however, the students said it was an incredible experience.

"It was really very different; everything is really effortless," said Nathan Powers, who made the trip one of his last experiences as a student before graduating last month. "Everything is really easy to do, except stand up straight. Other than that, you can just push off the cabin and float across it."

Matthew Turner, Jacob Campbell and Krystle Farnsworth were the other three members of the student research team.

"I'm not sure I can explain it because it's not like anything else you've ever experienced," Farnsworth said. "It's really amazing; you're just floating, and it's like nothing else."

Farnsworth said the first two free falls were disorienting, but once she and her fellow students got used to the sensation, they were able to make the most of the next 18 "dives."

Powers declined the motion sickness pill he was offered, because he was afraid it would interfere with his concentration, a decision that had mixed results.

"When we went into our first dive, everything got flipped inside my head and it looked like everyone else was upside down," he said.

The BYU team was investigating the phenomenon of tiny, dust-size particles that become trapped in laser beams. The commonly held belief has been that heated air, caused by the beam, created convection currents that kept the particles suspended.

However, convection can only exist when gravity is present, and smaller-scale experiments had led the BYU team to believe that the particles would still be suspended in a zero-gravity environment.

When professors suggested that the students needed a longer period of zero-gravity, Powers immediately thought of the Vomit Comet, which he had been wanting to experience since learning about it in high school physics.

The team wrote a proposal last fall, was selected to participate in January, and had less than two months to design and build an experiment before taking the flight March 30.

"During those last few weeks, every hour we had, we were working on our setup and conducting our preliminary experiments," Powers said.

He also had to cut his honeymoon short — he was married just the week before his trip — but said his new wife, Stacie, was excited and supportive, and made the trip to Texas to get the NASA experience, if only from the ground.

The team's experiment concluded that particles are still trapped in laser beams at zero gravity, closing the door on one erroneous theory, but opening the door on much more work as team members now want to know why.

For Powers, that means graduate work with the world's strongest pulse laser at the University of Nebraska, where he will begin attending on scholarship in the fall. For the three remaining team members, a return trip on the Vomit Comet would be welcome.

"Definitely; if there's any chance to go back, I would go," Farnsworth said.


E-mail: jtwitchell@desnews.com