The Ride of a Lifetime

Mechanical engineering undergraduate Ryan Baily gets a lift in this video taken aboard the NRC's Falcon 20 aircraft


Left to right: Shahrukh Alvi (NRC), Farhad Ismial, Aleksey Baldygin, Prashant Waghmare, Ryan Baily, Muhammed Khan, Duff Gowanlock (NRC)


Two recent graduates from Mechanical Engineering took a unique carousel ride this summer. Members of Dr. Prashant Waghmare’s iSSELab were in Ottawa last week for a flight aboard the National Research Council of Canada’s Falcon 20 aircraft. The aircraft performs parabolic maneuvers to simulate microgravity conditions so that scientists and engineers can run experiments to learn about microgravity and zero gravity conditions.


The team recently won a nation-wide competition called Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS-Canada) to test the formation and crystallization of droplets from a 3D printer in zero gravity conditions. While much is known about the formation of droplets here on earth, little is known about how the process would work in zero gravity conditions. Learning how 3D printing works in micro-gravity and zero gravity conditions is a priority for the Canadian Space Agency at the moment. Having 3D printers aboard the International Space Station, for example, will make it easier to repair the station or perform work in the station.

The group’s supervisor, Dr Prashant Waghmare, was impressed by the tremendous effort of SEDS-Canada, the CSA and NRC scientists and engineers. “This is the first time this event was organized and it happened because of the tremendous efforts from SEDS group. NRC scientists and engineering were with us for entire week to make sure experiment works. And the CSA supported this flight campaign,” he says.

The project was also supported by three different companies - KRUSS GmbH, Zaber Technology, and Engineering Beyond, as well as funding from Faculty of Engineering.  

Five members of team iSSELab were in Ottawa for the tests: Dr. Prashant Waghmare, the team’s supervisor; Dr. Aleksey Baldygin, Research Associate; Ryan Baily, a recent MecE grad; Farhad Ismail, a current MecE PhD student and; Muhammed Khan, a recent MecE grad.  


Ryan Baily and Farhad Ismail went up in the Falcon 20, accompanied by a technical advisor from the National Research Council. Ryan Baily was responsible for running the experiments and says that all the students were affected by motion sickness but that the advisors, who are well practiced at parabolic flight maneuvers, were not.


The flight consisted of a climb from 11,000 feet to 20,000 feet at a 40 degree angle, causing a force of 2G. At the top of the ascent, the students experience near-zero gravity for 20-23 seconds, until the plane began its descent, which also created 2G forces.


During this ride, Baily was responsible for controlling six pieces of software that controlled five pieces of equipment.


“It was hard on my body,” he says. “I had to begin recording right at the beginning of the 2G pull. Then right before micro-gravity I had to form the droplet and then stop the recording at the end of the 2G descent. During the level flight between climbs I had to move the dosing unit and the stages for the next run.”


Not only was Baily fighting against 2G forces for this work, he was also, of course, strapped into his seat, and working on a computer he had to stretch to reach.


After the flight the team had a few days in Ottawa to analyze their data. They found that the zero gravity did affect the formation of droplets extruded by a 3D printer. The droplets formed in micro-gravity had a lower contact angle than those deposited on earth. That is, they were a bit rounder on the plate. What’s more, the point that forms at the top of droplets also formed at a lower angle, which means that the drop was a bit pointier.

Their results were only possible because of everyone involved, says team supervisor, Waghmare.

“This was a team effort - motivated students, SEDS, the Flight Research Laboratory, the NRC and the CSA.”

Now that the team has had a practice run and has some results, they want to do it again.


“We’re happy that we have a functional and proven system and a trained operator,” says Baldygin. “We only did seven runs and we’d like to do more.”


“This success was made possible by SEDS, the Flight Research Laboratory, the NRC and the CSA,” says Waghmare. “But it is only a baby step in a very large challenge.”


The team is in talks with the Canadian Space Agency for future flights. Support from the CSA is crucial for the team’s work to continue. In the meantime the team is working to consolidate their six software programs into a single program so that the operators will have less to manage during the flight.


The team’s week in Ottawa ended with a closing ceremony where they presented their results. There too the team was met with a once in a lifetime chance as they were seated with former Canadian astronaut, Robert Thirsk.


Now that the team’s back home they’re entirely focused on the work ahead and making sure they get to take another ride on that carousel. And they are looking for others to join the ride.


“We are seeking talented, bright, motivated undergraduate students to get involved in this research,” says Waghmare. “This is the best opportunity to get hands-on experience for microgravity experiments and the challenges associated with such experiments. It might be someone’s only chance to experience microgravity.”


Even though he didn’t go up in the plane, Waghmare knows how fortunate the whole team is to be working on the project.


“I am so grateful to our collaborators and sponsors,” he says.