The refitted Airbus A310 aircraft is on the runway and ready for its first flight for weightless research next week. Although the aircraft can weigh up to 157 tonnes, skilled pilots will angle its nose 50° upwards to create brief periods of weightlessness. At the top of each curve, the forces on the passengers and objects inside cancel each other out, causing everything to float in weightlessness.
During the climb and pulling out of the descent, the occupants endure almost twice normal gravity. A person weighing 80 kg on Earth will feel as if they weighed 160 kg for around 20 seconds.
Conducting hands-on experiments in weightlessness and hypergravity is enticing for researchers in fields as varied as biology, physics, medicine and applied sciences.
French company Novespace has conducted these ‘parabolic flights’ for more than 25 years. Last year they acquired a new aircraft to replace their trusty Airbus A300. Most seats were removed to provide as much space as possible inside, while padded walls provide a soft landing for the researchers – the changes in ‘gravity’ can be hard to handle. Extra monitoring stations have been installed for a technician to monitor the aircraft system’s as it is pushed to its limits – this is no transatlantic cruise.
The inaugural scientific campaign will start on 5 May, a collaboration between Novespace’s three main research partners: ESA, France’s CNES space agency and the DLR German Aerospace Center.
Experiments include understanding how humans sense objects under different gravity levels, investigating how the human heart and aorta cope, looking at how plants grow, testing new equipment for the International Space Station, trying out new techniques for launching nanosatellites, investigating whether pharmaceutical drugs will work without ‘gravity’, understanding Solar System dust clouds and planet formation as well as investigating potential propulsion for martian aircraft.
ESA press release