‘Fly Your Thesis!' culminates this autumn

Students working in microgravity
6 July 2012

ESA’s successful ‘Fly Your Thesis! - An Astronaut Experience’ programme comes to an end this October. A final round of highly innovative student projects will be flown during this autumn’s ESA Parabolic Flight Campaign, before this university student programme is placed on hold.

The programme was designed to allow Master and Ph.D. student-built experiments to be flown in effectively weightless conditions, or microgravity as it is often called. This is the natural condition experienced in space.

A300 Zero-G
A300 Zero-G

Short periods of microgravity can be achieved on Earth by an aircraft flying in arcing, parabolic trajectories where it gains and then loses several thousand feet in altitude. For about 20 seconds around the peak of each parabolic trajectory, the passengers and the experiments on-board experience near weightlessness.

'Fly Your Thesis!' has taken place twice before, in 2009 and 2011, with student experiments hosted on board ESA’s Parabolic Flights, a programme run by the Directorate of Human Spaceflight and Operations. During each campaign four student teams performed experiments and gathered data. Some teams presented their results at international conferences and some submitted papers about their findings to scientific journals.

A running theme has been experiments that address the formation of planets. The first stage of this process involves the accumulation of dust in weightless conditions. Other experiments have investigated the assimilation of drugs by the human body, and the behaviour of fluids in weightlessness.

Prepare an experiment rack

This autumn’s campaign will again allow four student groups to run experiments. As before, the experiments have been chosen for their scientific value and include one seeking to understand more about the inner ear’s perception of gravity. Another will look at human postures in microgravity, with the aim of designing more comfortable manned spaceflight capsules.

At the completion of this autumn’s campaign, the programme will be placed on hold. This is no reflection on the quality of the experiments or the educational value of the programme, which is judged to be very high. Budget pressures alone and the increasing cost of hosting student experiments on the aircraft mean that the programme is no longer affordable for ESA's Education Office. 'Fly Your Thesis!' is therefore currently not scheduled to take place in 2013 and beyond.

ESA's Education Office first sponsored student experiments on parabolic flights in 1994 and 1995, in collaboration with the Technical University of Delft, The Netherlands, which made a small aircraft available as a microgravity platform. Between 2000 and 2006, ESA’s Education Office organised 7 dedicated student parabolic flight campaigns on the Airbus A300 Zero-G aircraft operated by Novespace (France), with 30 student teams benefiting each time, involving over 800 students in total.

Gettingready for the flight

The programme rested between 2006 and 2008, then resumed under the new name of 'Fly Your Thesis! - An Astronaut Experience'. The selection process – run in partnership by ESA and ELGRA (European Low Gravity Research Association) – became more rigorous. As a result, students had to demonstrate that the experiment would be an integral part of their Master or Ph.D. thesis or research programme and the quality of the experiments increased substantially.

“In the coming months we will investigate and explore all possible alternatives that could allow us to eventually restart the programme,” said Hugo Marée, Head of ESA Education and Knowledge Management Office. “We will see if new forms of partnership could help us to achieve the objective, but it is too early to draw any conclusion. In any case, we are extremely satisfied about the success and the source of inspiration that this programme has represented so far for many European students, also thanks to the excellent collaboration with our colleagues of Human Spaceflight and Operations, and we are committed to continue providing the same level of quality and output through the many other educational programmes we run.”

For more information, contact us at: flyyourthesis @ esa.int

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