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Lehigh 2011: A space odyssey

Amos Ambler was one of a team of Lehigh mechanical engineering majors chosen to take part in NASA’s Microgravity University last summer. The group studied the learning curve that the housefly goes through in zero gravity.

When Amos Ambler ’14 enrolled at Lehigh, he knew he would do interesting research. He just didn’t know he’d be doing it in zero gravity.

Ambler and the Lehigh University Microgravity team traveled to Houston, Texas, for 10 days earlier this year to study how houseflies fly in zero gravity.

The team of undergraduate mechanical engineering majors—which also includes Luke Yoder ’11, Evan Mucasey ’11, Greg DiMaggio ’11, Alec Clark ’11 and Edward Stilson ’11—was chosen to take part in NASA’s Microgravity University. They were accompanied by Robert Thodal, a graduate student in mechanical engineering.

“We wanted to look at the initial learning curve the housefly goes through as it experiences microgravity and how it modifies its flight trajectory to cope with changing conditions,” Ambler said.

Joachim Grenestedt, professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics, suggested that the team apply for the NASA program.

“Prof. Grenestedt saw this as an opportunity to work on an intriguing project while getting the chance to fly in zero gravity,” Ambler said. “We took the idea of the housefly and ran with it.”

Adjusting to a new lift-drag ratio

The students tested their project at Lehigh before heading to Houston. At NASA’s Johnson Space Center, they boarded a modified Boeing 727 airplane that provides simulated zero gravity for 20 to 30 seconds at a time.

There, suspended in space, they saw their research come to life before their eyes—while experiencing the weightlessness of zero gravity.  

“Zero gravity is really like nothing else I’ve ever experienced,” Ambler said. “It’s pretty much the coolest feeling in the world.”

As for the houseflies, they did backwards loops on their first attempt in zero gravity, and then gained control over their flight patterns and their environment.

“They showed a definite trend of doing backward loops due to the fact that the lift-drag ratio they were accustomed to was different,” said Ambler.

“But they were able to gain control and fly in what appeared to be a normal way in fewer than 3 short flight attempts.”

An early application of classroom learning

The opportunity to work with his classmates on a hands-on project, said Ambler, will help prepare him for a career in engineering.

“There’s a night-and-day difference between reading about something and actually doing it,” he said. “I got so much out of my freshman year because I was actually applying everything I was learning about in my classes. That will be a tremendous help when it comes to my career.”

It’s also helpful to work with students who share his dedication.

“I’ll be in the mechanical engineering building at 3 a.m. working on something and I’m not the only one there,” Ambler said. “It’s great to see how devoted students are to their projects. It helps motivate me.”

Ambler looks forward to continuing his work with Grenestedt on the housefly project and leading the student-run Land Yacht Speed Record Club.

“Lehigh really encourages innovation,” he said. “It’s really exciting to be around other people who are just as passionate about how things work as you are.”

 

Story by Adrienne Wright

Posted on Wednesday, November 09, 2011

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