Australia just launched its own ‘vomit comet’. It’s a big deal for zero-gravity space research

Last Saturday, a two-seater SIAI-Marchetti S.211 took off from Essendon Fields Airport in Melbourne with an expert aerobatics pilot at the controls and a bag full of science experiments in the passenger seat.

pilot Steve Gill The jet took on Australia’s first commercial “parallel flight”, in which the plane flies along the path of a freely falling object, creating a short period of weightlessness for everyone and everything inside.

Parabolic flights are often a test of the zero gravity conditions in space. This was operated by the Australian Aerospace Corporation object systemswhich plans to operate regular commercial flights in the coming years.

As the Australian space program takes off, the demand for such flights will increase.

What was on the plane?

The in-flight experiments were small packages developed by space science students at RMIT University. As the Director of the Space Science degree program at RMIT, I have been teaching these students for the past three years, preparing them for work in the Australian space industry.

Experiments investigate the effect of zero gravity on plant growth, crystal growth, heat transfer, particle agglomeration, foaming, and magnetism.

RMIT’s science payloads designed for parabola flight.
Jill Isles

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

First, zero gravity, or “microgravity,” provides a very “clean” environment for 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 they are sent into space.



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To create a niche in the aerospace industry, Australia should focus on microgravity research rockets


Onboard Laboratory: Small ISS محطة

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

Experience plants observed broccoli seedlings throughout the flight and did not find any negative reactions to excessive or microgravity.

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

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

The largest zero-gravity lab is of course the International Space Station (ISS), where studies of plant growth, crystal growth and physical science phenomena abound. At any one time, 300 experiments are conducted on the International Space Station.

Turning a tabletop experiment into a self-contained science payload of space is no easy feat. Each one must be thoroughly tested prior to launch to ensure it will work once it gets there, using parabolic flights or other test platforms.

go “zero-g”

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

If you throw a ball at a friend, it draws an arc as it flies through the air. From the moment you leave your hand, you’re in free fall—yes, even on the way—and that’s exactly the same arc as an airplane flies. Instead of a hand, it has a motor that provides the “thrust” you need to move around and fall through the air, following a parabolic arc as it travels.

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

Even the International Space Station experiences the same free fall as a ball or plane. The only difference to the International Space Station is that it has enough speed to “skip Earth” and keep moving forward. The combination of forward velocity and drag toward Earth keeps it spinning in circles orbiting the planet.

human spaceflight

Parabola flights occur in the United States and Europe every two or three months. On board the flights, researchers conduct science, companies test technologies, and astronauts receive training in preparation for spaceflight missions.

Formerly a researcher at the European Space Agency astronaut coachI’m a veteran of five parabolic flight campaigns in Europe. You have completed more than 500 parabolic pieces on the Novespace Airbus A300.

while I have Never get sick on these trips, Up to 25% of people on board vomit in zero gravity. That is why they are sometimes called “vomiting comets”.

why now?

So why does Australia suddenly need parabolic flights? Since the founding of the Australian Space Agency in 2018, many space projects have received funding, including a lunar probeAnd the Four Earth observation satellites and space suit.

For these projects to be successful, all of their various systems and components must be tested. This is where parabolic flights come in.

The plane flies over Melbourne (top left), with students (bottom left) and prepares to fly (right).
object systems

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

In addition to reading exciting scientific papers on the latest phenomena observed in microgravity, we’ll start seeing footage of satellites testing propagating their antennas and people in spacesuits on parabolic flights.