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William Jewell College partners with Louisiana State University on suborbital space research project
Contact: Rob Eisele816-415-7574
November 30, 2009

Dr. Patrick Bunton, professor of physics at William Jewell College, will lead a team of three William Jewell students in a research project partnership with Louisiana State University to assemble flight hardware for what is projected to be among the world’s first commercial payload space flights.

Dr. Bunton is co-investigator on the project with Dr. John Pojman, Professor of Macromolecular Science in the Chemistry Department at Louisiana State University. Dr. Bunton previously worked in the Optics Division at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center where he tested optical techniques for microgravity experiments. Since 2000, he has been chair of the Department of Physics and Mathematics at William Jewell College, where he does materials research on glasses and polymers.

“It is gratifying to be a part of this groundbreaking research,” Dr. Bunton said. “It is especially meaningful that we are able to involve Jewell students as a part of the research partnership. Faculty-directed student research of this magnitude is rare at the undergraduate level. It is one of the benefits that William Jewell is able to offer as part of a selective small liberal arts college environment.”

William Jewell College student participants in the research project currently are Anna Thoma (senior, chemistry major, Blue Springs, Mo.); Ruth Ann Simpson (junior, physics major, O’Fallon, Mo.); and Carl Merrigan (sophomore, Oxbridge Honors Program and physics major, St. Joseph, Mo).

Dr. Bunton and Dr. Pojman are working with Blue Origin, LLC, a privately funded aerospace company established by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. Blue Origin has flown an earlier version of the vehicle at their Culberson County, Texas, facility.

Blue Origin has selected three scientific research payloads, including the one from the LSU-Jewell partnership, to be carried to suborbital altitudes during flight testing of the New Shepard vehicle. The payloads will conduct experiments in the areas such as fluid physics and interaction of dust particles in New Shepard’s microgravity environment to examine phenomenon that cannot be effectively observed on Earth or in the relatively short-duration microgravity environment available on parabolic aircraft.

“The New Shepard vehicle has strong applications for a wide variety of science researchers, from atmospheric science to astrophysics, and from materials science to microgravity,” said Dr. Alan Stern, an independent consultant working with Blue Origin on the project. “As a next-generation suborbital vehicle, it offers unique research capabilities for a gentler ride to space and more frequent observations. The initial payloads selected by Blue Origin demonstrate the broad research opportunities the New Shepard program brings to science. I am excited that Blue Origin is able to offer these research opportunities so early in the vehicle’s test program.” Dr. Stern was formerly the head of all science missions at NASA headquarters, and is an experienced space principal investigator.

The three payloads will fly from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site during test flights in the development of the New Shepard vehicle.

Dr. Pojman and Dr. Bunton are investigating how miscible fluids, i.e., fluids that dissolve completely in each other, can act like immiscible fluids. Immiscible fluids have an interfacial tension between the fluids. Gradients in interfacial tension between two fluids can cause convection. Such gradients can be caused by variation in the temperature. They have demonstrated in ground-based experiments that miscible fluids can exhibit an effective interfacial tension if the gradient between the fluids is large. Unknown is whether a gradient of such an effective interfacial tension can be created by a temperature gradient that will result in observable fluid flow.

Experiments in the lab are complicated by the effects of buoyancy-driven convection. Dr. Pojman and Dr. Bunton plan to use the New Shepard vehicle’s zero gravity environment to observe fluid flow caused by a temperature variation at the boundary between two miscible fluids.

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