Leicester students to conduct (very quick) experiments in zero-G

Posted by mjs76 at Mar 03, 2010 04:55 PM |
Astronauts train in them. The movie Apollo 13 was filmed in one. Now a team of students from the University of Leicester have the chance to fly on a parabolic flight and conduct (very quick) experiments in zero-G as part of the European Space Agency’s ‘Fly Your Thesis!’ programme.

There are many aspects of space exploration which can be replicated on Earth – for research and for practice – but whatever you do on the ground, there is always that pesky 1G of gravity. The way to get round this, at least in the short term, is a parabolic flight. A specially adapted passenger plane flies up at an extreme angle, loops over the top of its trajectory and then plummets towards the ground, pulling out in time (hopefully!) to start another steep climb. It’s basically the world’s biggest, coolest roller-coaster.

Going up, the passengers experience twice normal gravity (2G) but on the way down you get about 20 seconds of weightlessness. Twenty seconds in which, if you are well-prepared (and have a strong stomach), you can conduct a very quick experiment.

Which brings us to Fly Your Thesis!, a project run by the ESA Education Office which gives student teams the opportunity to carry out (very quick) research aboard an Airbus A300 managed by the private contractor Novespace. The first flights took off last November. Twelve teams were shortlisted for the second round of experiments, scheduled for early 2011 – and one of them is from the University of Leicester.

L-R: Fergus Wilson, David Gray, Laura Evans and Charly Feldman

The GAPPA team consists of postgraduates Charly Feldman, David Gray and Fergus Wilson and undergraduate Laura Evans, supervised by Dr Graham Wynn, Senior Lecturer in Theoretical Astrophysics, and Dr Daniel Brandt of the Space Research Centre who flew on an ESA student parabolic flight in 2005.

Their (very quick) experiment will investigate a ‘condensation mechanism for non-ideal kinetic gases of varying temperature’, and its relevance to the formation of planets and ‘rubble pile’ asteroids in the early Solar System. Here is Dr Wynn to explain that in plain English:

“Planets like the Earth form in dust clouds around young stars. We aim to use the weightlessness experienced during the parabolic flight to recreate the conditions in these dust clouds inside a 10cm box. The box will be filled with sand, much like the silicate grains in the dust clouds, and shaken vigorously. We will look at how the sand grains cluster into larger structures which, under the right conditions, may be the seeds of planet formation.”

To reach this stage, the GAPPA team (Gravitationless Accretion of ProtoPlanets and Asteroids) had to present detailed scientific and technical proposals and give an oral presentation at ESA's Research and Technology Centre in the Netherlands. Next year the students will travel to Bordeaux and spend a week testing and installing their experiment onboard the aircraft, before putting their seats into the upright, locked position and bracing themselves for the ride of their lives.