Latest stuff from ESA and/or NASA : Retro meets retrofit


Retro meets retrofit: The Novespace Air Zero G aircraft is seen here next to Douglas the 1962 VW Transporter. The two are in Paderborn, Germany for the 76th ESA Parabolic Flight Campaign.

The refitted A310 Air Zero G aircraft flies in parabolas that offer teams from various research institutes and universities altered states of gravity  to perform experiments and technology demonstrations. Experiments span many disciplines including complex fluidics and human physiology, and this campaign is no exception. 

Running from 25 June to 1 July, the 76th campaign features an experiment studying the effect of gravity on hydrodynamics to better protect spacecraft and science instruments from the temperature fluctuations in space; a study on how immune cells flow under the stress of spaceflight; an experiment studying spinal stiffness under microgravity to mitigate lumbar pain for both astronauts and patients on Earth, to name a few.    

A typical parabolic flight campaign involves three flights and requires a week of on-site preparation. Each flight offers 31 periods of weightlessness. The aircraft can also fly in arcs that provide lunar or martian gravity levels by adjusting the angle of attack of the wings. Each flight of this particular campaign will split the gravity states, flying one third of parabolas at martian-G, one third at lunar-G, and one third at zero-G.

The aircraft flies close to maximum speed and pulls the nose up to a 45° angle, then cuts the power to fall over the top of the curve. Whilst falling freely the passengers and experiments experience around 20 seconds of microgravity, until the plane is angled 45° nose-down, before pulling out of the dive to level off with normal flight.

These “pull up” and “pull out” manoeuvres before and after the weightless period increase gravity inside the plane up to 2g, but that is just part of the ride, repeated every three minutes for almost two hours.

The campaign is the fourth to take place under Covid-19 restrictions. Despite measures loosening across Europe, participants and coordinators adapted to safety measures: PCR tests were required to enter Germany, as well as rapid antigen or RT LAMP tests each day for every participant. Facilities on the ground as well as on board are adapted to allow for social distancing and cleanliness requirements. Surgical masks are worn at all times, and movement is restricted during the flights.

University students can also take part in a parabolic flight campaign thanks to the ESA Education Office’s Fly Your Thesis! programme. Masters and PhD students can propose their experiment, and upon selection, will be supported in preparing their experiment for the campaign by ESA Academy, ESA and Novespace experts. The 2022 Call for Proposals is now open.

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  • July 1, 2021