What goes up: UAlberta students carry out experiments in simulated zero-gravity conditions on parabolic flight

Experiments conducted in 2019 lay groundwork for components for next satellite project by student group AlbertaSat.

Andrew Lyle - 29 January 2021

Before our world was turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of University of Alberta students had the chance of a lifetime to experience zero-gravity on a parabolic flight—and to conduct some scientific experiments while they did so.

In November 2019, members of the student group AlbertaSat participated in a parabolic aircraft flight, made possible by research funding by Ian Mann, professor in the Department of Physics and faculty advisor to AlbertaSat, and in partnership with NASA and the University of Iowa, through the contracted flight provider Zero Gravity Corporation. These parabolic flights simulate zero-gravity conditions right here on Earth by climbing to high altitudes and then diving at rapid speeds.

“Parabolic flights are commonly used as a in-situ testbed for structures and other systems designed to perform in the microgravity environment of space,” explained Katelyn Ball, AlbertaSat member who began her master’s studies in the Department of Physics this year. “The company who executes the tests, Zero Gravity, regularly opens their planes to researchers and tourists interested in experiencing true microgravity without leaving earth. The plane drops from 30,000 feet to 15,000 feet in about 30 seconds, giving the passengers and experiments on board about twenty seconds of weightlessness.”

Floating an idea

The AlbertaSat team built and launched the first made-in-Alberta satellite, Ex-Alta 1, and is hard at work on their next satellite, Ex-Alta 2, which will capture wildfire data from orbit and continue the space weather monitoring started on Ex-Alta 1. The students used the parabolic flights to test an articulated boom which will deploy a magnetometer sensor away from the magnetically noisy spacecraft. 

“We alternated deploying the two booms we had on the flight with us each drop. We could only deploy one boom each drop since the they would get into each other’s way as they deployed if done at the same time,” said Ball. “On the parabolic flight we were on there were five other experiments from research institutions around the world—even one high school student got funding for her own microgravity experiment on our flight.”

Once the realm of large national and international space agencies, space exploration and the utilisation of space are now presenting increased opportunities for universities and commercial entities alike. “To be able to utilise space at low cost increasingly requires a drive towards innovative miniaturised technology” said Mann. For Canada to derive significant economic benefits from this new aerospace industry also requires training tailored to meeting the challenges of operating in the harsh space environment. “The University of Alberta’s space program aims to combine the development, testing, and rapid prototyping of innovative new space technology with a unique space-based training. Our goal is to ensure that Alberta fully benefits from the economic opportunities presented by taking a leadership role in the new space race,” added Mann.

The experience of weightlessness had a special meaning to Ball and the UAlberta students as well, as she explains:

“The Zero Gravity Corporation flight was a really full circle moment for me. Just like most people interested in space, feeling the sensation of microgravity was very high on my bucket list. It is one thing to experience microgravity for fun as a tourist. But it was a completely different thing to do meaningful research and actually discover things about the system you built–it gave the experience a whole extra layer of sentiment.”

This material is based upon work supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration under Grant No. 80NSSC18K1293 issued through the Space Technology Mission Directorate. This research was undertaken in collaboration with the University of Iowa Department of Physics and Astronomy under principal investigator David Miles, who completed his graduate studies under Mann's supervision at UAlberta. Flight services were provided by the Zero Gravity Corporation’s Research Program.

Interested in astronomy? Learn more about the cutting-edge space research being conducted at UAlberta on our space hub.