Brighton researcher floating in zero gravity

Brighton research team go weightless in latest space research project

A University of Brighton team has carried out a set of experiments flying over France on parabolic flights that create weightless conditions similar to space.

The weightless effect is achieved flying a series of steep upward and downward manoeuvres which can be compared to riding a rollercoaster with a total drop of 3km (10,000 feet)! The flights from Bordeaux’s Novespace centre are carried out by a specially adapted Airbus A310 plane that climbs then plummets in a way which balances gravitational forces to provide a sequence of short periods of weightlessness lasting around 22 seconds – but experienced 31 times each flight.

Working in collaboration with researchers from the University of Liverpool, the team from University of Brighton’s world-renowned Advanced Engineering Centre saw Professor Marco Marengo – a veteran of nearly 20 ‘weightlessness flights’ – working alongside Dr Nicolas Miché (project lead) and PhD student Francois Clemens to test pulsating heat pipes under microgravity conditions, looking at shape changes and capillary action in different arrangements of bent tubes.

Pulsating heat pipes are used to move heat from one place to another without fans or pumps, and can be used to help satellites and space probes stay at the correct temperature in the challenging conditions of space. The new system being tested by the Brighton team involved an innovative flexible form of heat pipe designed to be a forerunner of future flexible electronics, deployable radiators and booms in space operations.

Past experiments carried out by the Brighton team floating above France have looked at how heat pipes of different configurations and materials react and operate in different gravities, with implications both for safety in space as well as the effective conduct of experiments on orbital vehicles such as the International Space Station (ISS).

University of Brighton postgraduates also won the European Space Agency’s student project competition Fly Your Thesis in 2018 – after being the first UK team selected to take part in the long-running programme for 14 years.

Professor Marengo said: “What is important in this kind of flights is doing experiments directly on  set-ups under weightless conditions, which makes this program different to all the other tools for microgravity experiments, such as sounding rockets, drop towers and the ISS.

I have experienced more than 300 parabolas – over 100 minutes with absence of weight. The first time is a surprise, since you have really the impression to fly, to float in the air. It is difficult to get used to this feeling because it lasts only 22 seconds, preceded and followed by a period in hyper gravity, which can be rather heavy to cope with. In the transition between microgravity and hyper gravity, you can also feel dizzy even as frequent 0g flier.”

Novespace is part of the French Space Agency (CNES), and its Airbus A310 ZERO-G is one of the world’s largest parabolic flight aircraft. UK involvement in space has surged in recent years, with rocket bases planned for Scotland and Cornwall, and nearly 45.000 people now employed in the industry.  The UK’s latest National Space Strategy plans to invest more than £6 billion over the next 10 years to strengthen the UK as a world class space nation.  The UK Space Agency provides active support to student and research team access to microgravity platforms such as parabolic flights.