The next time you receive a shot at the doctor’s office, pay close attention to how the syringe is handled. Immediately before an injection, the needle is pointed upwards, tapped with a finger and some of the fluid is ejected before it is inserted into the body. Any air bubbles, or embolisms, that rise to the top and are removed from the needle.
This is a crucial step in administering shots, as embolisms inside the bloodstream can travel to the heart or the brain and cause death. For astronauts in space, however, there is no gravity and there is no “up” — so how can they receive shots safely?
This past December, NASA announced that two groups of undergraduates from the University had been selected from a pool of applicants to enroll in “Microgravity University,” or the Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program. Both teams will travel to Houston’s Johnson Space Center in July to perform experiments in a zero-gravity environment. One of the groups will experiment with removing embolisms from needles; the other will study the dynamics of fluid droplets.
Engineering seniors Laura Gadzala, Andy Klesh, Rene Kreis, Jeff Lance and junior Nick Shoeps make up the group of students who will investigate how to make needles safer in space.
The intrepid group of microgravity researchers will board a C-9 aircraft that will fly steep parabolic arcs up and down over the Gulf of Mexico, creating half-minute intervals of weightlessness.
Their plan is to spin syringes pre-loaded with air bubbles in a centrifuge. This creates artificial gravity in the syringes because the acceleration, due to the spinning, simulates the effects of gravity.
Due to the zero-gravity environment, the sharp needles themselves will be removed prior to flying, leaving the syringes, or the barrels containing the fluid, to be spun. The heavier fluid will sink and the lighter bubbles will be pushed up.
“Artificial gravity pushes bubbles to the end so they can be removed,” Gadzala explained.
With NASA’s latest goal of human exploration on Mars, the duration of space missions will be measured on the scale of years instead of weeks or months. In the ever-more likely possibility of a medical situation requiring needles in space, this research has the potential to deliver safe injections to astronauts.
In previous years, the KC-135 aircraft, affectionately known as the “Vomit Comet,” was used to create the weightless environment. The KC-135 has flown 80,000 parabolas, some of the most well-known of which have been used to film scenes of the movie “Apollo 13.”
This year the smaller C-9 will be flown, reducing the 70 student groups usually selected to do research down to 50.
In addition to the air embolism group, the University will be sending a team investigating a different aspect of fluid dynamics. Aerospace engineering undergraduates Jamal Al-Amin, Robin Lin, Jeffrey Medlen and William Stoddard will be video-taping the action of spinning droplets in a microgravity setting.
The experiment will set a droplet of liquid spinning at different speeds to measure the changes in shape of the droplet in zero- gravity.
As a spherical object spins, its shape tends to flatten outwards — spin it fast enough, and it will split into two. Even the rotating Earth exhibits this behavior, as it is slightly thicker around the equator than at the poles, resembling an M&M.
Under normal conditions, however, it is difficult to study a spinning droplet free of other influences. A weightless drop of liquid in space is a sphere, but on Earth its shape deforms to a teardrop.
The group plans to experiment with a variety of liquids at different speeds, examining the degree of shape-shifting in relation to the viscosity, or stickiness, of different liquids. This research may help scientists understand the shapes and spins of asteroids. And on Earth, it may improve processes that require forming spheres, like the manufacture of ball bearings.
For all the possible practical implications of both groups’ subjects of study, the members are finding it a daunting task to raise funds to support their trip to Houston. A majority of both groups’ budgets of several thousand dollars will be spent simply getting themselves and their equipment there. The Engineering College’s Wilson Student Project Center provided some financial support to the groups.
NASA will provide the flight opportunity, which is itself no small contribution — private aviation companies are now starting to offer similar microgravity trips for $80,000 per flight.
It was this opportunity that first piqued the interest of the selected undergraduates, even before they had a project idea in mind. “I’ve had friends do the NASA project before and I can remember being jealous … the only real hard part was finding a project idea,” said Al-Amin.
Gadzala, of the air embolism group, agreed. “Roller coasters will be so lame after this.”