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Microgravity contest takes students and experiments on the vomit comet

TechCrunch TechCrunch 4/05/2016 Nitish Kulkarni

FOX’s “Xploration Outer Space” show is teaming up with Arlington, Va.-based ZERO-G Corporation, which operates weightless flights from U.S. airports. The reason they’re collaborating: to create the ultimate consolation prize for college students who were just too young to apply to NASA’s latest astronaut class.

The show, a part of FOX’s “Xploration Station” series, which focuses on STEM education for youth, is hosting a science experiment contest called ‘Student Astronaut’ with a pretty cool prize. Contestants who demonstrate interest in space exploration and submit the most interesting basic science experiment to be performed in microgravity will win a ride and get to perform their experiment on a Boeing 727 aircraft while weightless.

Science experiments in microgravity are incredibly fascinating, with even basic experiments yielding beautiful and cool results, like the spherical blue flames that researchers have been producing for years to great effect.

Unfortunately, as cool as that looks, the competition’s rules have decided to err on the side of caution. In order to ensure contestants’ safety, experiments cannot involve glass, power tools, or weapons, and any liquids in use must be both approved for flight and completely contained. To add to that, the experiment also cannot involves drones of any kind, preventing college freshmen from settling petty physics questions that often ask about objects thrown into the interior of moving vehicles.

Applicants must also be enrolled in a learning institution and can apply on the competition’s Facebook page with a video that, in addition to a description of their experiment, must explain why they should be chosen for the flight. Applicants need also share their thoughts on space exploration’s importance.

“The student who wins will gain experience in communicating scientific ideas to the public in an entertaining and educational way,” said Emily Calandrelli, the show’s producer and host. Calandrelli is also a space writer at TechCrunch.

Sending student science experiments into microgravity isn’t new, but this is one of the first times students will get the chance to go weightless along with their test setups. YouTube’s Space Lab competition sent experiments designed by pre-college students into orbit to the International Space Station in 2011 and 2012.

One interesting constraint for these newest contestants will be the short burst of microgravity that flight in the ZERO-G 727 provides, as opposed to the continuous weightlessness that, say, orbital flight can achieve.

The aircraft flies in a series of 15 continuous parabolas, with each parabola yielding about 30 seconds of microgravity as the aircraft is around the apex. The parabolas start at 24,000 feet, with the aircraft pitching up 45 degrees to the horizon until the apex at 32,000 feet. During the ascent, passengers will feel 1.8 times the force of gravity, hence the competition’s requirement that applicants be in good physical shape.

In fact, a ride on the company’s aircraft, which includes parabolas that simulate Martian and Lunar gravity, typically costs $4950 retail before tax.

Applications for the Student Astronaut Contest Close on Sunday, May 15, and winners will be announced the following week.

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