Australia has just flown its own ‘vomit comet’. It’s a big problem for non-gravity space exploration

Last Saturday, a two-seater SIAI-Marchetti S.211 jet took off from Melbourne’s Essendon Fields Airport with an expert aerobatic pilot at the flight decks and a suitcase full of science experiments in the passenger seat.

pilot Steve Gale took the plane on Australia’s first commercial “parabolic flight,” where the plane flies along the path of a free-falling object, creating a brief period of weightlessness for everyone and everything inside.

Parabolic flights are often a test flight for gravity in space. It was operated by the Australian aerospace company Creature Systemswhich plans to operate regular commercial flights in the coming years.

As Australia’s space program kicks off, these types of flights will be in high demand.

What was on the plane?

The onboard experiments were small packages developed by space science students at RMIT University. As program manager of RMIT’s degree in space science, I have been teaching these students for the past three years to prepare them for careers in the Australian aerospace industry.

The experiments investigate the effect of gravity on plant growth, crystal growth, heat transfer, particle agglomeration, foam and magnetism.

RMIT University scientific payloads designed for parabolic flights.
Gail Iles

Scientific phenomena behave differently in weightlessness than in laboratories on Earth. This is important for two main reasons.

First, gravity, or “microgravity,” provides a very “clean” environment in which to conduct experiments. By removing gravity from the system, we can study a phenomenon in a more “pure” state and thus better understand it.

Second, microgravity platforms such as parabolic flights, sounding rockets and drop towers provide testing facilities for equipment and science before it is sent into space.

Read more:
To conquer a space industry niche, Australia should focus on microgravity research rockets

Lab in an airplane: a mini-ISS

Last Saturday’s flight was a success, with the six experiments capturing a variety of data and images.

The plant experiment observed broccoli seedlings in flight and found no adverse reactions to hyper- or microgravity.

Another experiment formed a crystal of sodium acetate trihydrate in microgravity, which grew much larger than its counterpart on the ground.

Insulin crystals grown in standard gravity (left) are smaller than those grown in microgravity (right).

The largest gravity lab is, of course, the International Space Station (ISS), where studies of plant growth, crystal growth and natural science phenomena are commonplace. At any given time, 300 experiments are taking place on the ISS.

It’s not easy to turn a benchtop experiment into a standalone science payload for space. Each must be thoroughly tested before launch to make sure it will work once it gets there, using parabolic flights or other test platforms.

‘zero-g’ go

There is a common misconception that you have to go into space to experience microgravity. In fact, it is the state of free fall that makes things seem weightless and can also be experienced here on Earth.

If you throw a ball to a friend, he will follow an arc as he flies through the air. From the moment it leaves your hand, it’s in free fall – yes, even on its way up – and this is the exact same arc the plane flies. Instead of a hand, it has a motor that provides the “push” it needs to travel and fall through the air, following a parabolic arc.

Diagram showing the speed, acceleration and direction of flight of an aircraft in parabolic flight.
The flight path during the parabolic maneuver.
Van Ombergen et al., Scientific Reports (2017)

Even the International Space Station experiences the same free fall as the ball or the plane. The only difference for the ISS is that it has enough speed to “miss the ground” and keep moving forward. The combination of its forward speed and gravitational pull to Earth keeps it spinning in circles around the planet.

Human spaceflight

Parabolic flights in the US and Europe take place every two or three months. On the flights, researchers conduct science, companies test technologies and astronauts receive training in preparation for spaceflight.

As a researcher at the European Space Agency and former astronaut instructor, I am a veteran of five parabolic flight campaigns in Europe. I have completed over 500 parabolas aboard the Novespace Airbus A300.

while i have never get sick on these flights, up to 25% of the people on board vomit in the zero-g conditions. This is why they are sometimes called “vomit comets”.

Why now?

So why does Australia suddenly need parabolic flights? Since the Australian Space Agency’s inception in 2018, several space projects have received funding, including a moon roverfour Earth observation satellites and a spacesuit

For these projects to succeed, all of their various systems and components must be tested. That’s where parabolic flights come in.

The plane flies over Melbourne (top left), with students (bottom left) and ready for flight (right).
Creature Systems

As demand increases, so will Australian planes. Beings Systems has plans to offer a larger aircraft, such as a Lear jet, by 2023, so that researchers and companies alike can test their equipment, large and small, without leaving the country.

In addition to reading exciting scientific articles about the latest phenomena observed in microgravity, we will begin to see images of satellites testing the deployment of their antennas and people donning and donning spacesuits aboard parabolic flights.

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