28 May 2002

Experiencing zero-gravity in a NASA aircraft dubbed the “vomit comet” in the company of Australian astronaut Dr Andy Thomas would be a dream come true for any engineering student.

The dream became reality for University of Queensland mechanical engineering PhD candidate Gwenael Chiffoleau, who returned to Australia last month.

Mr Chiffoleau was scheduled to conduct research in the areas of metals combustion and nanomaterials fabrication in a weightless environment last September. However, the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC temporarily delayed his plans.

The research tests finally went ahead in March in NASA’s KC-135 aircraft, which is located at the Johnson Space Centre in Texas and used for experimentation and astronaut training in reduced gravity.

A completely unplanned and unexpected bonus was flying with Dr Thomas, Australia’s first man in space on the Endeavour in May 1996.

“Ending up flying with Dr Thomas was a chance encounter, but a fantastic experience none-the-less,” Mr Chiffoleau said.

Mr Chiffoleau and fellow UQ PhD student Amanda Edwards have been working on a collaborative research project investigating the burning of metals in oxygen-enriched environments.

The project is part of a group of programs involving UQ`s Phenomena in micro-Gravity (PiG) Laboratory and the NASA Johnson Centre’s White Sands Test Facility (WSTF) in New Mexico.

Mr Chiffoleau, Ms Edwards and PhD student Christine Pienaar are part of the PiG Laboratory group supervised by Dr Ted Steinberg in UQ’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.

After fronting an interrogation panel of 10 NASA specialists, Mr Chiffoleau and his team of NASA WSTF test engineers – Miguel Maes and Mike Caro — hit the skies for four consecutive days of flying.

“Each flight lasted approximately two-and-a-half hours and consisted of 40 parabolas with each parabola allowing us about 25 seconds of zero-gravity,” Mr Chiffoleau said.

“Metals burn completely differently in zero-gravity, compared to normal-gravity, and therefore flammability characteristics change, that’s why we needed to do tests in a zero gravity environment.

“We burned iron rods at pressures ranging from 0.4 to 70 MPa and managed to record important data that will aid our understanding of how iron burns in an oxygen-enriched environment.”

Mr Chiffoleau said the results, which were currently being collated in the PiG Laboratory, would help in the selection of the appropriate metal for different oxygen systems in both zero-gravity and normal-gravity applications.

During the flights, Mr Chiffoleau also collected approximately 20 samples for Ms Pienaar, the results of which are presently being analysed at UQ’s NanoMaterials Centre (NanoMac).

Ms Pienaar’s research examines nanomaterial formation in reduced gravity, which allows the fabrication of glass-like compounds under high compositional control at room temperature.

Nanomaterials can be utilised in areas such as quantum semi-conductors, membranes and catalysis. This research is a collaborative project between the PiG Laboratory and NanoMac, under the direction of Dr Max Lu and Dr Joe da Costa.

Mr Chiffoleau said similar work was already being planned for future flight campaigns.

Media: for further information, contact Mr Chiffoleau (telephone 07 3365 3702, email g.chiffoleau@uq.edu.au), PiG Laboratory (telephone 07 3365 4179), NanoMac (telephone 07 3365 3885) or Joanne van Zeeland at UQ Communications (telephone 07 3365 2619, email communications@uq.edu.au).