Professor Mark Weislogel likes to drop goldfish from buildings. Don’t worry, it’s for science.
When Weislogel was a graduate student, he was transfixed with NASA videos of fluids moving through tubes aboard the International Space Station. He quickly became fascinated with how things — especially fluids — move in micro-gravity. For the next ten years, he worked at NASA devising his own zero-g experiments. In 2001, he went to Portland State University and started dropping goldfish from 50+ feet above a student common area.
In space, studying how fluids move around is easy enough — just get some water and get a’ scienceing. But down here on the surface, we have to simulate a weightless environment. To do this, we created “drop tubes” or “drop towers” that are essentially rigs allowing for repeatable studies of objects in free-fall. (In orbit, astronauts are constantly falling towards the Earth as the Earth falls away from them.) We need set-ups like this because a drop of fluid dances a different dance in space:
To get amazing views like this, Portland State University’s drop tower drops a 400-pound, refrigerator-sized metal canister from five stories up. High speed video cameras record the experiments as they are subjected to zero gravity for about two seconds. To prevent the nearly 35,000 Joules of energy from destroying anything at the bottom, magnetic flux is used to bring the apparatus to a halt — the same mechanism that a hoverboard uses to hover.
This drop tower is one of only three in the United States, but it isn’t the tallest. At NASA’s Zero Gravity Facility, they get 5 full seconds of free-fall.
So what is all this free-fall teaching us? Weislogel studies how fluids move through different structures in zero-g with the hope of applying what he learns for everyday use. He’s already made a special low-gravity coffee cup for astronauts to use. Spilling your coffee in space is much more serious than spilling it on your pants. On the more serious side, understanding how fluids move in space can help us make more efficient engines and life-support systems to get us across the cosmos.
But I honestly don’t know what happened to the goldfish. It’s probably fine maybe.
You can watch Weislogel give a full talk about his work, including how students react to a magnetically-breaking refrigerator falling next to them 100 times a day, here.
Kyle Hill is the Science Editor of Nerdist Industries. Follow of Twitter @Sci_Phile.