Durham levitators make their way to the European Space Agency

By Alex Prior, Jochem Langen, and

Have you ever wanted to Marty Mcfly your way through Durham? Or perhaps fly on a magic carpet on the way to your lectures? Well, this might soon become a reality based on a physical phenomenon known as acoustic levitation! This effect is caused by vibrating plates that produce pressure waves, allowing objects to be suspended directly above the plate.

While acoustic levitation, first demonstrated in 1933, is commonly used today in scientific studies and manufacturing, some aspects of it, such as its behaviour at very close distances and under different gravity conditions, are still not fully understood. To address this, three physics undergraduates at Durham University, Alex Prior, Jochem Langen, and Paolo Barrios, are performing a study in collaboration with the European Space Agency as part of the latter’s Spin Your Thesis! 2021 programme. Their team, known as ‘The Levitators,’ are one of only three projects selected from the whole of Europe to participate in this programme.

The research will aid scientists in understanding how levitated objects might behave during space flights in the vicinity of massive bodies such as stars and black holes

The team will attempt to apply pressure waves from a nearby vibrating plate to an object over a short distance to induce near-field acoustic levitation and then study how this behaviour varies under different gravity conditions using the Large Diameter Centrifuge at ESA’s ESTEC facility in the Netherlands. This facility is able to simulate up to 20x Earth’s normal gravity, hopefully allowing The Levitators to improve the general theory describing the near-field acoustic levitation phenomenon. Their results will hopefully not only aid scientists in better-understanding near-field acoustic levitation in general but also help the worldwide space industry predict how levitated objects might behave on the surface of planets much larger than Earth, during the launch of spacecraft, or even during space flights in the vicinity of massive bodies such as stars and black holes.

Having just finished their training week with the ESA, during which they held technical meetings with ESA engineers, attended lectures by gravity experts and met veteran astronaut Jean-Francois Clervoy, The Levitators are currently working on obtaining the necessary materials and equipment using funds provided by the ESA. While the inability to work in labs, for the time being, will inevitably delay their progress, the team relishes the chance to make the most of the situation by continuously improving their project design with the assistance of Durham’s Physics and Engineering departments and by performing social outreach – an essential aspect of working with the ESA.

While this social aspect guarantees that the team’s progress is easy to follow via social media platforms such as Facebook (@nfal.esa.du), Twitter, Instagram (@the_levitators), and LinkedIn, The Levitators themselves also serve as ESA ambassadors who are willing to answer queries related to careers and opportunities related to the ESA or indeed acoustic levitation in general. ESA-sponsored gravity-related programmes such as Spin Your Thesis!, Drop Your Thesis!, Orbit Your Thesis! (where the ESA will send your experiment to the International Space Station!) for instance, as well as young graduate schemes are always free and open to students from Durham University. For more information, feel free to contact either ESA Education or your nearest Levitator.

Image: The Levitators

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