Plasma, and Convection, and Microgravity! Oh, My!PPPL Science Education Team Takes Experiment Aboard NASA's Weightless Wonder
Surrounding the box (with a PPPL sticker) containing the plasma ball and lava lamp are, from left, Princeton High School teacher Tim Anderson, PPPL's James Morgan, Notre Dame High School teacher Hope Brennan, PPPL's Andrew Zwicker, and Toms River High School teacher Ken Hartzfeld.
By Patti Wieser
Using a plasma ball and a
glitter lamp,a team from the DOE Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) studied convective flow in microgravity aboard NASA's Weightless Wonder in Houston August 3 and 4.
"We collected data by filming a plasma ball and a 'glitter lamp' as the airplane performed a series of 68 parabolas over two days and the gravitational force varied between 0 and 1.8 g," says PPPL Science Education Program Head Andrew Zwicker.
It was the Lab's third year to participate in experiments on zero-gravity flights and Zwicker's second year aboard one of the 90-minute journeys. "We looked at how changes in gravity affect the rise of the plasma filaments," he says. "Then, just for something extra, we decided to add a glitter lamp, which also shows how shiny pieces of glitter rise when a light bulb at the bottom of the lamp heats the fluid within."
Plasma, the fourth state of matter, is a hot, electrically charged gas. The team recorded the plasma filaments' rate of rise under microgravity, and compared it to the rate under normal and hypergravity.
In a plasma ball, filaments of plasma form when a central electrode ionizes gas atoms inside the sphere. The plasma filaments heat the background gas, causing it to rise convectively. This creates an area of smaller gas density. The next plasma filament forms slightly higher than the one it replaced since it is easier to form the filament in that location. The net result is that the plasma filaments in the plasma ball rise to the top. However, in zero gravity, the plasma filaments freeze.
"We used standard video equipment and visual analysis software for the experiment. The team is analyzing the video and writing new curricula for their classes so that their students can use this data," notes PPPL Senior Program Leader James Morgan, who participated.
The team spent several days in Houston, training and preparing for the flight before taking their science experiment aboard. Participating teachers are from the DOE Academies Creating Teacher Scientists (ACTS) program at PPPL, a seven-week mentored research experience for high school and middle school teachers (see list below).
"It went beyond awesome," Zwicker says of the experience. "It was a fusion of education and science."
The ACTS teachers who participated in experiments aboard the Weightless Wonder are:
Tim Anderson, Princeton High School, Princeton, NJ
Hope Brennan, Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, NJ
Pamella Ferris, Riverside Middle School, Evans, GA
Ken Hartzfeld, Toms River High School, Toms River, NJ
Paul Sedita, Canandaigua Academy, Canandaigua, NY
Lisa Tarman, William Penn High School, York, PA
PPPL Science Education participants: