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Liberto First ODU Student to Experience Zero Gravity at Space Center

Maria Liberto is rarely at a loss for words. The outgoing Old Dominion University mechanical engineering student is passionate and personable, when talking about her studies, or her outside-school interests.

But the Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology senior struggles to express what it was like to experience flying in an airplane that created a zero gravity environment .

"It was … words can't really describe it," Liberto says. "It was an amazing experience. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Liberto, 24, spent last fall in an internship at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Her group was selected through the Undergraduate Student Research Program to conduct an experiment in the Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program (RGSFOP).

To win the right to experience a few dozen 15- to 20-second bursts of zero or reduced gravity, Liberto and her team worked tirelessly for four months, preparing their experiment.

"The four months went so fast. It was like a week," Liberto says.

The research looked at magnetism concepts. Liberto's team wanted to demonstrate how the force of magnetism is separate from the force of gravity. It was done by looking at magnetic field lines in the absence of gravity. Because of the gravitational pull of Earth, magnetic fields usually appear in two dimensions.

"For young students, magnetic and electrical fields are very hard to visualize" in two dimensions, Liberto explains. "We were trying to demonstrate how they're very independent of each other. In an antigravity environment, you can display these magnetic field lines in three dimensions."

Liberto, who is hoping to complete the joint bachelor's and master's degree program in spring 2010, is the first ODU student to participate in the RGSFOP. Her project, which included students from across the United States, received most of its funding from the Virginia Space Grant Consortium.

The team's work built steadily through the fall, interrupted for a week by Hurricane Ike. "We were evacuated, but the storm sort of followed us," Liberto laughs. Then, after students went home after the Thanksgiving break, the team continued its work by meeting remotely. Liberto was one of two project members who remained behind in Houston.

And all of this work was done on top of Liberto's regular duties through the Johnson Space Center internship.

"Lots of sleep was lost, but it definitely paid off in the end," she says.

The work culminated with flight week, Jan. 7-17 at Ellington Field in Houston.

After the students checked in and spent a frantic few days preparing the experiment for its flight test, NASA engineers came in and did a test readiness review, making sure the project was safe to fly.

"It's one of those nerve-racking moments. NASA can come in and make you or break you," Liberto says. "Luckily, we kept our experiment very simple, and took the requirements supplied to us to build it very seriously."

Finally, it was flight day. The team climbed onto a specially modified 727 and it took off over the Gulf of Mexico.

To achieve antigravity, the plane climbed steeply, then leveled off at a precise angle, providing everyone in the back of the aircraft 15-20 seconds of zero gravity, or simulations of gravity on the moon (one-sixth of Earth) and Mars (one-third of Earth). Liberto's team had to do its experiment within those brief windows of time.

"There was not only testing. You were trying to adapt to the weightless environment," Liberto says. The students took anti-motion-sickness medication and wore flight suits.

At the end of the flight, the members on Liberto's team were able to see for themselves that magnetic field lines are distinct from gravity because they function even when there is no gravity.

The research team hopes the video shot during the experiment can be used in classrooms as a visual aid for magnetism concepts.

She's back at school this semester, but Liberto is already planning a way to experience more zero-gravity moments. She hopes to work for NASA after she graduates from Old Dominion.

This article was posted on: February 10, 2009

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