Monday, December 22, 2014

ESA Starts New Era of Experiments on Parabolic Flights

The new Airbus A310 and the retiring A300 together on the apron at Bordeaux airport. Credit: Novespace

After 17 years of loyal service, the European workhorse for microgravity research in parabolic flights, the Airbus A300 ‘Zero-G’ operated by Novespace of France, is retiring this year. Its successor, the Airbus A310 ‘Zero-G’, is already being prepared for the first campaign in April 2015. ESA has organised parabolic flights since 1984 and flown experiments on six different aircraft in over 60 campaigns. The A300 aircraft was used from 1997 for over half of ESA’s microgravity campaigns. It was also used for two collaborations offering reduced-gravity flights with French space agency CNES and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and seven ESA student campaigns.

From 1984 until 1996, ESA used five aircraft to conduct its first 23 parabolic flight campaigns: two NASA KC-135s, the CNES Caravelle, the Russian Ilyushin IL-76 MDK and the Dutch Cessna Citation II. In 1997, ESA began working with French company Novespace, a subsidiary of CNES, to organise all of its weightlessness campaigns on their Airbus A300.

The Airbus A300 was the largest airplane in the world used for gravity research. The success of this aircraft is evident in the long list of customers including ESA, CNES, DLR, the Japanese space agency JAXA, industrial customers and private commercial flights, offering hundreds of international researchers access to weightlessness and reduced-gravity for experiments and investigations in simulated lunar and martian gravity.

Even though the Airbus A300 was working well, maintenance costs were rising and finding spare parts was becoming difficult. Built in 1978, it was the third aircraft of its type, the A300B2. Novespace purchased an Airbus A310 from the German air force in June 2014.

The Airbus A310 has roughly the same dimensions as the A300, only about 5 m shorter. The interior of the aircraft will be designed differently so the cabin area and experiment volume will remain the same, about 20 m long by 5 m wide and 2.2 m high.

In summer 2014, the A310 flew its qualification flights from Bordeaux-Mérignac airport. It was modified by Lufthansa Technik and will undergo final certification in March 2015 with the European Aviation Safety Agency and the French Civil Aviation Authority.

The first scientific campaign is planned for next April in another collaboration between ESA, CNES and DLR, marking the beginning of a new era in microgravity and reduced-gravity research. Twelve experiments have already been selected by the three agencies for a mixed payload of physical and life sciences. After this flying start, 2015 also sees two more ESA microgravity campaigns in June and November.

Credit: ESA