Defying Gravity: Lighting Weightless Fires for Science (Photos) Defies Gravity


In April 2014, shadowed a group of students from the University of California, San Diego who were selected by NASA to test an experiment on board a zero-gravity flight.

UCSD Team Suits Up for Flight Week

Henry Lu

The UCSD team suits up for flight week. From left to right: Joshua Siu, Jose Garcia, Henry Lu, Sam Avery, Semaan Farah, Andrew Beeler, Greta Sharoyan and Victor Hong

Astronaut Stott and Students Aboard Zero-Gravity Flight

Henry Lu

From left: Student Victor Hong, NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, Andrew Beeler and Henry Lu pose for a selfie aboard a their zero-gravity flight on April 10, 2014. The University of California, San Diego students were testing how biofuels burn in weightless conditions.

First Flight


The first group of fliers for UCSD (from left to right: Victor Hong, Andrew Beeler and Henry Lu) ran their experiment with ethanol and kerosene on April 10, 2014.

Megan in Zero-G

NASA's Megan Gannon during the flight on April 11, 2014.

Biofuel Experiment

Victor Hong

The students built an elaborate contraption so that they could safely light small fires on the plane and measure the burn rate of four different fuels: butanol, ethanol, E85 and kerosene.


Victor Hong

The team unpacks their experiment, shipped to Ellington Field from San Diego.

Megan at the Controls

Megan Gannon for reporter Megan Gannon tries running the biofuel experiment.

Practice Experiments

Megan Gannon for

The UCSD students practice running their experiment in NASA's hanger at Ellington Field in Houston on April 9, 2014.

Semaan Farah

Megan Gannon for

Semaan Farah practices using the controls to operate UCSD's biofuel experiment.

Fire in Weightlessness

Rod Pyle /

Flames in space lose their teardrop shape. In a weightless environment, fires tend to look like bluish, slow-burning orbs. This actually makes it easier to study and define the combustion rate of different fuels.

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Megan Gannon Contributing Writer

Megan has been writing for Live Science and since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity on a Zero Gravity Corp. to follow students sparking weightless fires for science. Follow her on Twitter for her latest project.