University of Central Florida research has now flown on the first three flights of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, with Saturday’s successful launch and landing at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

“It was exhilarating and moving to share the experience with the large group of family and friends of Virgin Galactic employees on hand for the flight,” says Josh Colwell, a UCF physics professor who attended the flight and whose project was aboard the spaceplane.

“The flight was beautiful, and we had a nice clear view as SpaceShipTwo rocketed to space,” he says.

Virgin Galactic Unity in Space
VSS Unity in space over New Mexico on May 22, 2021. Photo credit: Virgin Galactic

The research project is known as Collisions Into Dust Experiment, or COLLIDE. It tested how dust particles behave in microgravity, which was achieved when SpaceShipTwo coasted for several minutes above the earth’s atmosphere. The particles are designed to simulate asteroid regolith, or loose dust and rocks on an asteroid’s surface. For this flight of COLLIDE the researchers used particles up to a quarter inch in size.

“We saw with the recent sampling of the asteroid Bennu by OSIRIS-REx just how fragile and loose the material on the surface of an asteroid can be,” Colwell says. “COLLIDE helps us better understand how that material responds to very gentle disturbances so that we can design the appropriate mechanisms for landers and astronauts to work on and near the surfaces of small asteroids in the future.”

On this flight, the researchers tested a new type of regolith simulant and also addressed a problem that caused the experiment to run early on the previous flight, which resulted in it missing the microgravity test conditions they wanted.

The research involves shooting an impactor into a simulated asteroid surface very slowly in a microgravity environment and observing what happens using high frame-rate video.

The experiment rode aboard SpaceShipTwo, a Virgin Galactic spaceplane that was launched from its mothership before reaching its apogee and then gliding back down to a runway on earth.

COLLIDE rode on Unity’s maiden and second voyages as well in December 2018 and February 2019, respectively.

Physics Assistant Professor Adrienne Dove is a co-investigator on the project, which has had contributions from many UCF students over the years. For instance, Richard Wakefield, a UCF senior studying mechanical engineering, has been working on optimizing the COLLIDE system, such as mechanical changes to make it lighter and stronger, electrical updates, and an overhaul of the experiment’s software.

“I feel incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to take part in this research,” Wakefield says. “It’s exciting to know that the things I’m designing and building will be going to space. It’s the kind of thing that appeals to the curious kid inside of us.”

The flight was funded through NASA’s Flight Opportunities program.

Colwell is a Pegasus Professor of physics and assistant director of the Florida Space Institute. He received his doctorate in astrophysical, planetary and atmospheric sciences from the University of Colorado at Boulder and his bachelor of science in physics from Stetson University. He joined UCF’s Department of Physics, part of UCF’s College of Sciences, in 2006.