When your collaboration with NASA has been postponed by a year (like ours), there are several other ways to experience microgravity. You can become an astronaut (priceless), and spend weeks or months weightless on the International Space Station. You can purchase a ticket on Virgin Galactic ($200,000) and spend 6 minutes weightless on a sub-orbital flight that goes to about 70,000 feet. You can but a seat on a parabolic flight ($5,000) and be weightless for approximately 20 seconds per parabola. Or you can skydive ($200) and free fall for about 50 seconds before the parachute opens. Of course each of those has to make sure that you reach the ground in the same condition that you left it.
Things are much easier when people aren't involved and you are trying to test your experiment in a microgravity environment. Then, you can simply drop your experiment from a high height and during the free fall, your equipment will be in a situation equivalent to there being no gravity at all. Make sense? If not, go back to the skydiver. Before the parachute opens the skydiver takes an apple (when you discuss gravity, it always has to be an apple, thanks Isaac Newton!) and lets it go. What happens? Both are falling at the same rate and to the skydiver, the apple appears to float as if there is no gravity. Now all you have to do is figure out how to get your experiment to a fairly high height (how about 100 feet up), drop it from that height, record what happens during the flight down to the ground and, if you want, have it land on something soft so you can do it again.
The Franklin Institute is studying magnetism during microgravity. The team had tried a couple of drop tests from inside the museum but Steph wanted to try something bigger, something higher. Working with our site protection division, she arranged for the Plainsboro Fire Company to bring their Tower 49, a 2010 E-One Cyclone II with a 100 ft. aerial platform to the lab. Then she, Aliya, and a bunch of volunteers filled bags with styrofoam until they ran out of it and then filled many more just with air to create a drop zone where the experiment would land and, hopefully, survive, so it could be dropped twice.
The first drop was flawless, the box landed in the middle of the drop zone, the video camera inside the box recorded the motion of the iron filings during the drop and the team has the video to analyze. The second drop well...just as it was released there was a small gust of wind...and whoops...just missed...windage! Even though the box hit the ground and then bounced into the drop zone everything survived and the entire experiment was a huge success. Besides the Plainsboro Firefighters, the PPPL Emergency Services Unit did a tremendous job and Stephanie was outstanding leading everyone. The Trenton Times wrote a wonderful story on the drop.