UCF Pushes Space Frontier, Selected to Fly on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo

UCF Pushes Space Frontier, Selected to Fly on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo

Courtesy of Virgin Galactic

A UCF experiment and a 3-D printer for space developed by a UCF graduate will fly on the first NASA-funded commercial research flight on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.

NASA and Virgin Galactic   announced Tuesday that 12 university experiments, two industry-developed technologies and two NASA projects were selected for the mission.

Joshua Colwell, a UCF physics professor and assistant director of the Florida Space Institute , leads the UCF experiment, which will look at how a projectile launched into simulated moon dust or asteroid material will behave in weightlessness. The knowledge of this behavior will help in understanding future operations on asteroids or low-gravity moons for scientific study and resource collection.

“We are thrilled to have the opportunity to fly our experiment aboard the first commercial research flight chartered by NASA,” Colwell said. “It is important that scientists have access to these kinds of flights that don’t require deep-space travel. What we can learn will have a significant impact in how we plan for those deep-space missions.”

Made in Space, a company founded by UCF engineering graduate Jason Dunn (’07, ‘09), will test a 3-D printer developed for space during the flight as well. Dunn’s vision for the printer, which he shared when he visited UCF last year, is to be able to produce whatever is needed for space operations in space via the printer. From housing material to replacement parts, the goal would be to build it in space, lessening the need to haul expensive and space consuming materials aboard spacecraft.

The experiments were selected as part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. All the experiments need the few minutes of zero gravity that will occur when SpaceShipTwo flies. NASA has been working with commercial companies, universities and government organizations to coordinate testing of innovative space technologies on research flights through the use of commercial suborbital opportunities. A date for the flight has not been announced.

In April 2013, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo broke the speed of sound barrier, according to the company. It is now in the final phase of vehicle testing before it can begin commercial service from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Company founder Richard Branson has said that he expects SpaceShipTwo will fly before the end of 2014.

Colwell joined UCF in 2006. He has a bachelor’s degree in physics from Stetson University and a Ph.D. in astrophysical, planetary and atmospheric sciences from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He has worked on many NASA missions including the Cassini mission, which is unlocking the secrets about Saturn’s rings. Colwell is also assistant director of FSI, an organization at UCF that supports space research, educational activities and development of Florida’s space economy.