Fourteen European science teams have just concluded experimental sessions
in a microgravity environment — without expensive trips to orbit or even
rocket launches. They all took part in ESA’s 30th Parabolic Flight Campaign
at Bordeaux-Merignac Airport, and they flew their experiments aboard the
special "Zero-G" Airbus A300 owned by Novespace.

The aircraft follows a precisely-calculated flight path that almost exactly
matches the parabolic curve traced out by any object falling freely — a
thrown stone, for example. While it is on that parabolic trajectory, the
aircraft and everything inside it — in this case, people and their
experiments — are weightless.

Since aeroplanes are not usually designed to behave like free-falling rocks,
the whole procedure requires some very accurate flying. The pilots first
bring the Airbus to near-maximum speed — more than 800 km/h — in level
flight at 6,000 metres. Next, they haul the machine into a gut-churning
45-degree climb, and throttle back the engines to provide just enough power
to match air resistance. Nudging the flight controls as required, the crew
let their aircraft "fall" upwards for around 2,000 metres, over the top
of the parabolic curve — with airspeed down to just 390 km/h — and down
again to its starting altitude. Then they put full power back on and pull
the machine abruptly from its dive back into level flight.

During the 20 seconds between climb and pull-out, its scientist-
passengers — who may well include some trainee European astronauts; ESA’s
AndrÈ Kuipers was on board during the May campaign — can check out their
near-weightless experiments. In the course of a single Zero-G Airbus
flight, they can expect to repeat the experience up to 30 times.

The mission can be very hard on stomachs, not so much from the weightless
spells as from the fierce 1.8-g accelerations when the Airbus climbs into
and pulls out of its parabola. (The equivalent NASA aircraft has the
well-earned nickname "Vomit Comit".) But everyone on board considers the
flight well worth risking the loss of a breakfast.

Those brief interludes of weightlessness are invaluable preludes for much
more expensive trips into microgravity — perhaps aboard the International
Space Station. Thanks to their trip aboard the Airbus, scientists can be
confident that the effects they want to observe really occur, and that
the apparatus they have designed will work properly.

The 14 experiments on this campaign — ESA’s busiest ever — included
eight in physical sciences and three in life sciences. There were also
three student experiments that had already flown on the Zero-g Airbus:
they were the most successful of 30 projects aboard the aircraft in last
October’s Student Parabolic Flight Campaign.

Among the professional experiments were an investigation into metallic
foam formation and aluminium welding in microgravity, and a very practical
test of heat exchangers designed for Refrigerator-Freezer racks on the ISS.
The life science experiments included a test of bone-monitoring equipment
that could also one day fly aboard the ISS, where long-term bone loss
is a health problem for astronauts. You can find a full list of all 14
experiments here.

The next ESA Parabolic Flight Campaign is scheduled for October 2001. Most
of the experiment slots on board are already filled, but there Ìs also a
limited amount of room on the aircraft for media representatives interested
in microgravity science. Journalists wishing to apply are invited to do so
by sending an e-mail to .

Related News

* The busiest ever ESA parabolic flight campaign ready to take off
* Experiments and scientists involved in the 29th ESA parabolic flight
* Falling upwards: how to create microgravity

Related Links

* ESA Parabolic Flights
* ESA Microgravity Programmes


[Image 1:]
[Image 2:]
Microgravity at Merignac