Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Type



Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources


Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Committee Chair

John M. Kuhlman

Committee Co-Chair

Patrick Browning

Committee Member

Majid Jaridi


West Virginia University (WVU) has created the Small Microgravity Research Facility (SMiRF) drop tower through a WVU Research Corporation Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (PSCoR) grant on its campus to increase direct access to inexpensive and repeatable reduced gravity research. In short, a drop tower is a tall structure from which experimental payloads are dropped, in a controlled environment, and experience reduced gravity or microgravity (i.e. "weightlessness") during free fall. Currently, there are several methods for conducting scientific research in microgravity including drop towers, parabolic flights, sounding rockets, suborbital flights, NanoSats, CubeSats, full-sized satellites, manned orbital flight, and the International Space Station (ISS). However, none of the aforementioned techniques is more inexpensive or has the capability of frequent experimentation repeatability as drop tower research. These advantages are conducive to a wide variety of experiments that can be inexpensively validated, and potentially accredited, through repeated, reliable research that permits frequent experiment modification and re-testing.;Development of the WVU SMiRF, or any drop tower, must take a systems engineering approach that may include the detailed design of several main components, namely: the payload release system, the payload deceleration system, the payload lifting and transfer system, the drop tower structure, and the instrumentation and controls system, as well as a standardized drop tower payload frame for use by those researchers who cannot afford to spend money on a data acquisition system or frame. In addition to detailed technical development, a budgetary model by which development took place is also presented throughout, summarized, and detailed in an appendix. After design and construction of the WVU SMiRF was complete, initial calibration provided performance characteristics at various payload weights, and full-scale checkout via experimentation provided repeatability characteristics of the facility. Based on checkout instrumentation, Initial repeatability results indicated a drop time of 1.26 seconds at an average of 0.06g, with a standard deviation of 0.085g over the period of the drop, and a peak impact load of 28.72g, with a standard deviation of 10.73g, for a payload weight of 113.8 lbs.;In order to thoroughly check out the facility, a full-scale, fully operational experiment was developed to create an experience that provides a comprehensive perspective of the end-user experience to the developer, so as to incorporate the details that may have been overlooked to the designer and/or developer, in this case, Kyle Phillips. The experiment that was chosen was to determine the effects of die swell, or extrudate swell, in reduced gravity. Die swell is a viscoelastic phenomenon that occurs when a dilatant, or shear-thickening substance is forced through a sufficient constriction, or "die," such that the substance expands, or "swells," downstream of the constriction, even while forming and maintaining a free jet at ambient sea level conditions. A wide range of dilatants exhibit die swell when subjected to the correct conditions, ranging from simple substances such as ketchup, oobleck, and shampoo to complex specially-formulated substances to be used for next generation body armor and high performance braking systems. To date, very few, if any, have researched the stabilizing effect that gravity may have on the phenomenon of die swell. By studying a fluid phenomenon in a reduced gravity environment, both the effect of gravity can be studied and the predominant forces acting on the fluid can be concluded. Furthermore, a hypothesis describing the behavior of a viscoelastic fluid particle employing the viscous Navier-Stokes Equations was derived to attempt to push the fluid mechanics community toward further integrating more fluid behavior into a unified mathematical model of fluid mechanics. While inconclusive in this experiment, several suggestions for future research were made in order to further the science behind die swell, and a comprehensive checkout of the facility and its operations were characterized. As a result of this checkout experience, several details were modified or added to the facility in order for the drop tower to be properly operated and provide the optimal user experience, such that open operation of the WVU SMiRF may begin in the Fall of 2014.