The Stephen W. Hawking Center for Microgravity Research and Education (The Hawking Center) is a joint venture of the University of Central Florida and Space Florida that conducts and facilitates research in microgravity sciences. The Center makes use of parabolic airplane flights, drop towers, suborbital rocket flights, and orbital flights. The Center’s educational activities include providing hands-on training and experience to college and university undergraduate and graduate students in the design, fabrication, and operation of space experiments.
What is Microgravity?
Microgravity is the term used to refer to an environment in free-fall. The term is a bit of a misnomer because it doesn’t refer to a low level of gravity, but rather the condition of an object moving freely in response to gravity. When you drop something, for the fraction of a second before it hits the floor that object is experiencing “microgravity” even though it is really moving under the full acceleration due to the Earth’s gravity. An object sitting on a table experiences the Earth’s gravity but also an equal and opposite force upward from the table. Microgravity environments are those where that restraining force from a table, chair, the floor, or atmospheric drag, for example, is absent. Microgravity can be achieved for experiments with the following platforms:
Drop Tower – Using this ground-based method, a payload is dropped from a specified height and subjected to free-fall conditions, producing microgravity for only very short durations.
Parabolic Airplane Flights – Using specially modified aircrafts that perform parabolic maneuvers, microgravity can be achieved for an approximate duration of 25-30 seconds per parabola.
Suborbital Rockets – These types of vehicles transport the payload into space and return to the same approximate location as it never makes it into orbit. Using this method provides a longer duration of microgravity.
Orbital Platforms – For example, payloads on the International Space Station can experience microgravity for days to years.
A broad array of fundamental research is enabled by the microgravity environment whether it is in a ground-based drop tower, parabolic airplane flights, or suborbital rocket flights. Each platform has advantages and a place in a broad scientific research endeavor. The research fields that are enabled by microgravity include:
- Collisional and aggregation processes in protoplanetary disks
- Collisional evolution of planetary ring systems
- Evolution of the dusty surfaces of asteroids and small moons
- Physical evolution of comet nuclei
- Space Life Sciences
- Fundamental fluid physics
- Physics of granular media
- Validation of space hardware and space operations
- Crystal growth
- Dusty plasma physics
The University of Central Florida has expertise in several of these research areas and promotes active research programs that will be leveraged by the The Hawking Center.