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Science & Exploration

N° 42–1999: ESA parabolic flights to prepare for the International Space Station

21 October 1999

On 25 October, a specially adapted Airbus A-300 will take off from Bordeaux-Mérignac airport in France on the first of a week-long (25-29 October) campaign of parabolic flights designed to carry out experiments in weightlessness and to test instruments and equipment before they embark on a real spaceflight. These campaigns observe how technical systems and biological, chemical and physical processes function in the absence of gravity and this one, the 27th organised by the European Space Agency (ESA), will focus mainly on how the human respiratory system works and how new materials can be produced.

During a parabolic flight the aircraft performs a nose-up manoeuvre to put it into a steep climb. This creates a centrifugal force of 1.8 g (1.8 times the force of gravity on the ground) for about 20 seconds. Then the pilot reduces engine thrust to almost zero, injecting the aircraft into a parabola.

The plane continues to climb till it reaches the apex of the parabola, then it starts descending. This condition lasts for about 25 seconds, during which the passengers and all unstrapped equipment in the cabin float in the weightlessness resulting from the free fall of the aircraft. When the angle below the horizontal reaches 45°, the pilot accelerates again and pulls up the aircraft to come back to a steady horizontal flight. These manoeuvres are repeated 30 times per flight.

During the weigthlessness periods, the 28 scientists on this flight - from research institutes in six European countries and the US (*) - will carry out their work : measuring blood pressure under various conditions, monitoring a newly developed instrument or heating metals in a purpose-built furnace, in order to confirm a hypothesis, test instruments or replicate results obtained during an earlier spaceflight.

The 26 previous campaigns that ESA has conducted since 1984 have produced a total of 2650 parabolas and almost 15 hours of weightlessness, the equivalent of flying around the Earth (in low Earth orbit) nearly 10 times. A total of 360 experiments have been carried out.

With Europe and its international partners now building the International Space Station, where research will be carried on for the next 15 years, parabolic flights are crucial to the preparation of experiments, equipment and astronauts and allow scientists to have their experiments tested before they are actually flown on a space mission.

Over the coming four years, ESA will run two parabolic campaigns a year. Scientists are regularly invited to submit experiment proposals for review and selection by peers. Those whose experiments are selected have the possibility to participate in an ESA parabolic flight campaign. In each of its future campaigns, ESA will also include experiments proposed by students to encourage the scientists of tomorrow to learn all about experimention in weightlessness and the extensive research opportunities the International Space Station is going to offer.

Further information on ESA parabolic flights can be found at ESA's special parabolic flight internet pages at :
You may also contact:
Vladimir Pletser
ESA/ESTEC, Microgravity Payloads Division
Directorate of Manned Spaceflight and Microgravity
Tel: + 31 71 565 33 16
Fax: +31 71 565 3141

Franco Bonacina
ESA Public Relations
Tel + 33 1 5369 7155
Fax. + 33 1 5369 7690

For further information on ESA visit our web site:

(*) Experiments and scientists involved in the 27th ESA parabolic flight campaign:


1. "Gravity and lung function, first use of ARMS in microgravity", Prof. D. Linnarsson (Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, S), Prof. M. Paiva (University of Brussels, B) and Dr G.K. Prisk (University of California, San Diego, USA). Focuses on the quantitative relationship between lung geometry, gas diffusion and convective gas transport.2. "Does weightlessness induce peripheral vasodilatation ?", Dr P. Norsk and Dr R. Videbaek (DAMEC, Copenhagen, DK). To test hypothesis on the dilatation of the heart and the peripheral vascular system that could be caused by weightlessness. Both experiments make use of ESA's "Advanced Respiratory Monitoring System" built by Innovision (DK) and Alcatel Space (CH) which is to be flown on the Shuttle in January 2001.3. "Respiratory mechanics under 0g", Prof. P. Vaïda (University of Bordeaux 2, F) and Prof. G. Miserocchi (University of Milan, I) to study pulmonary mechanics.4. "Otolithic control of the cardiovascular system during parabolic flights", Drs P. Denise, H. Normand (University of Caen, F) and Dr P. Arbeille (University of Tours, F). To test the hypothesis that otolithic receptors, part of the inner ear balance system, affect the cardiovascular system.5. "In vivo monitoring of the mechanical environment of fractures in microgravity", Prof. M. Hinsenkamp and Prof. F. Burny (University of Brussels, B). Will measure mechanical constraints in healing bones on subjects having recently fractured tibia.6. "The effects of a change in gravity on the dynamics of prehension and the kinematics of the upper limb during cyclic arm movements with a hand-held load", Profs. J.L. Thonnard, N. Heglund and P. Willems (University of Louvain-La-Neuve, B). Will measure the grip force and total load force of test subjects.7. "The effect of short-duration microgravity on leukocyte early signal transduction events and cytoskeleton dynamics", Drs J. Hatton, J.P. Breittmayer (Hôpital Archet, Nice, F) and Dr B. Hashemi (National Space Biomedical Research Institute, Houston, USA). Leukocytes are white blood corpuscles found in suspension in human blood plasma. This experiment will help explain the mechanisms of leukocyte sensitivity to gravity.8. Investigations of metallic foam production under microgravity conditions", Dr S. Odenbach (ZARM, University of Bremen, D) and Dr J. Banhart (IFAM, Bremen, D)". Will study metallic foams, new materials with interesting properties of high firmness and low weight with potential applications in lighter car shock absorbers, for instance.9. "Thermal analysis of pure silicon and aluminum-silicon alloys by mirror furnace experiments", Prof. H. Fredriksson (Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, S). Will investigate samples of pure silicon and aluminum-silicon alloys using a special furnace developed by the Swedish Space Corporation and flown several times on previous ESA campaigns.10. "Critical velocities in open capillary flow (choking)", Dr M.E. Dreyer, U. Rosendahl and Prof. H.J. Rath (ZARM, University of Bremen, D). This fluid physics experiment aims at determining the maximum flow rate which can be established in a capillary channel.11. "Completion of fault arc investigations at cable bundles under weightlessness conditions", Prof. König, J. Hanson and F. Hörtz (Darmstadt University of Technology, D). This technological investigation looks at the characteristics of insulated cables after exposure to the thermal effect of different electrical power in microgravity.