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3 mins read 23 Nov 2020

Western Australian Students Design Microgravity Device

Students from University of Western Australia have designed a rocket that falls from an altitude of 30 km to conduct experiments under microgravity conditions.

University of Western Australia Aerospace with their EMU project. Credit: UWA Aerospace.

University of Western Australia (UWA) Aerospace is currently developing a device to help conduct experiments under microgravity conditions. The device, called EMU (Experimental Microgravity Unit), drops payloads from a 30 kilometer height in order to achieve microgravity conditions for up to a minute. The UWA Aerospace group consists of student engineers and scientists who enjoy applying and extending the concepts they learn in the classroom.

What is Microgravity?

Microgravity is any gravity environment in which objects (including humans) appear weightless. This effect can be seen on the International Space Station, where astronauts float around as they orbit the Earth. Before we send materials into such an environment, they need to be tested to ensure that they can survive and operate correctly. This is where experiments such as EMU come in, by providing a useful platform to perform such tests. 

The EMU Design

EMU is designed to simulate microgravity through freefall. The device is similar to an upside-down model rocket attached to a weather balloon, as explained in a video (above) presented by UWA Aerospace for the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) of 2020. 

The weather balloon, filled with helium, then lifts the device to an altitude of 30 kilometers, into the upper stratosphere, carrying payloads of up to a few kilograms. Once altitude is reached, the tether to the balloon is severed, allowing the device to enter into freefall. In this way, microgravity conditions can be achieved for up to 11 seconds, allowing for experiments to be conducted under these conditions. Parachutes are deployed when the device reaches the thicker part of the atmosphere, allowing for a safe return to Earth.

The University of Western Australia Aerospace team inflating a weather balloon. Credit: UWA Aerospace.

Using this design, UWA Aerospace can produce a setting for microgravity experiments which only costs a few hundred dollars per flight, as opposed to some of the other technologies on the market, which can range into the thousands. UWA Aerospace’s solution is uniquely cheap, mainly attributing its costs to helium and balloon material, and therefore is perfectly suited to use in the university setting. EMU was also specifically designed to utilise parts that could be manufactured by the university or be bought off-the-shelf, therefore making it easy to build by university students.

UWA Aerospace

UWA Aerospace focuses on research, competitions, and outreach. Aside from the EMU project, in 2020 they have also worked on Aang, a high-powered rocket with integrated air-brakes to control altitude, and Roo, a rocket designed to carry payloads at low altitudes. UWA Aerospace also encourages hands-on STEM learning for school and community groups through their outreach programs.