Australia has just launched its own ‘vomit camet
A two-seater SIAI Marchetti S.211 jet, with a highly-skilled aerobatic pilot in the cockpit and a suitcase full of scientific experiments on the passenger’s seat, took off last Saturday from Essendon Fields Airport.
The pilot, Steve Gale, flew the jet in Australia’s very first commercial “parabolic” flight, where the plane follows the path of an object that is falling freely. This creates a brief period of weightlessness inside the aircraft for all passengers and crew.
Parabolic flight is often used to simulate the conditions in zero gravity of space. This flight was conducted by the Australian space company Beings Systems. They plan to operate regular commercial flights over the next few years.
These flights will be very popular as Australia’s space program takes off.
What was on board the plane?
Students from RMIT University developed the experiments on board. I’ve been teaching students in RMIT’s Space Science degree for the last three years. This has prepared them for a future career in Australia’s space industry.
The experiments examine the effects of zero gravity on plant and crystal growth, heat transmission, particle aggregation as well as foams, magnetism, and particle agglomeration.
RMIT University science payloads for parabolic flight. Gail Iles
In zero gravity, scientific phenomena behave differently than in laboratories on Earth. It is important to note that this has two major implications.
Zero gravity or “microgravity” is a “cleaner” environment to conduct experiments. We can better understand a phenomenon by removing gravity.
Second, the microgravity platforms, such as parabola flights, sounding missiles, and drop towers, provide testing facilities for equipment and scientific research before they are sent into space.
Lab on a plane: a mini ISS
The flight on Saturday was a great success. Six experiments were carried out, resulting in a wide range of images and data.
The broccoli experiment monitored the seedlings during flight and found that they did not react negatively to either hyper- or microgravity.
In a second experiment, a crystal of trihydrate sodium acetate was formed in microgravity. It grew larger than the counterpart it had on Earth.
Insulin crystals in microgravity are much smaller than those in standard gravity. NASA
International Space Station is the largest zero-gravity laboratory, where studies on plant growth, crystal formation and physical science phenomena are routine. On the ISS, 300 experiments can be carried out at any given time.
It is not simple to turn a benchtop science experiment into an independent payload for the space. It is important to test each one thoroughly before launch, whether it’s using parabolic flight or another testing platform.
It’s a misconception that microgravity can only be experienced in space. It’s the state of freefall that makes things appear weightless. This can be felt on Earth as well.
When you throw a football to a friend, it will trace an arc in the air. The ball is in freefall as soon as it leaves your hands – even when it’s going up. This is the same arc the aircraft follows. An engine, not a hand, powers it. This gives it the “push it needs” to travel through the air and trace a parabolic arc.
The flight path during the parabolic maneuver. Van Ombergen et al., Scientific Reports (2017)
The International Space Station also experiences the same freefall that the ball and the aircraft do. Only the ISS has the velocity to keep moving forward and “miss” the ground. Its combination of forward momentum and Earth’s pull keeps it in a circle, orbiting our planet.
In the USA and Europe, parabolic flights are conducted every two to three months. Researchers conduct science on the flights, companies test technology, and astronauts are trained in preparation for spaceflight.
As a researcher with the European Space Agency and a former instructor for astronauts, I have participated in five parabolic flight campaigns across Europe. I have completed more than 500 parabolas aboard the Novespace Airbus A300.
Even though I have never been sick on these flights, up, to 25% do vomit when in zero-g conditions. It is for this reason that they are often called “vomit comests.”
Why does Australia suddenly need a parabolic flight? Since the Australian Space Agency’s establishment in 2018, funding has been provided for several space projects, including a Lunar Rover, Four Earth-Observation Satellites, and a Space Suit.
All the systems and components of these projects will have to be tested in order for them to be successful. Parabolic flights are the answer.