5 mins read 07 Jul 2022

Parabolic Flight testing for space research arrives in Australia

Beings Systems is bringing parabolic flight opportunities to Australia. This will not only give daring individuals the opportunity to experience weightlessness but it will support research and space technology development. 

The Beings Systems SIAI-Marchetti S.211 jet which is one of two aircraft currently being used for parabolic flight testing. Credit: Beings Systems.

Melbourne-based start-up Beings Systems have started delivering parabolic flights for zero-gravity testing. The company recognised a niche in they could fill in the growing Australian space industry. 

Using the SIAI-Marchetti S.211 jet, an Italian-built fast jet training aircraft, Beings Systems are offering the opportunity for space companies to test their technology and experiments in a zero-gravity environment, a capability previously only available in the US and Europe.   

“I had a look overseas to see what most people do when they get started, and parabolic flights came up which I've always been interested in being a pilot myself. So, we wanted to see if we can create an opportunity for people to do testing in space environments. [This kind of] laboratory is an achievable objective and something that gets used by NASA and the European Space Agency quite often,” said Beings Systems Founder and RAAF Fighter Pilot Kieran Blair. 

With the current challenges around global travel and supply chains, having the capability to test experiments that would typically have to go overseas will be a significant advantage for a growing industry. 

“We are building the [testing capabilities of] the International Space Station on a plane so we can get to space more rapidly, qualify for space more rapidly and experiment in a replicated environment,” said Blair about the project. 

Supporting RMIT

The Beings Systems team and Dr Gail Iles setting up the experiments on the aircraft. Credit: Beings Systems.

Beings Systems are working with Dr Gail Iles, who is a Senior Lecturer in Physics at RMIT University, and Founder and Program Coordinator of the new BSc Space Science. Dr Iles also used to be part of the European Space Agency astronaut training program and has significant experience with parabolic flights. 

“She was working for the European Space Agency and then she's moved over to Australia as a lecturer at RMIT. She's got about 500 parabolas under her belt, so we've been working really closely with her to stand up a capability for academia and students,” said Blair.   

The team at Beings Systems are developing a number of services to support the Australian space industry. These include testing to demonstrate capability in a zero-gravity environment,  hardware verification and validation to technical readiness level 7 and a variety of gravity types to simulate different gravity environments such as lunar and Martian. However, it is being able to support research and researchers to see their experiments that is exciting the team.

“We know electronics work in space, you don’t need to put them into a parabolic aircraft to find out. But anything else that's affected by gravity that we take for granted. The flight for RMIT was a beer test where they were looking at the bubble formation in beer as something we take for granted is convection and buoyancy.” 

“Those things don't exist in space, so if you want to, let's say look at your experiment and reduce its risk - that's what you use parabolic aircraft for, so the demand really for us is very much around science. This is a really big opportunity for Australian researchers to conduct research into never before seen phenomenon in experimentation,” added Blair.  

Parabolic Flight

During a parabolic flight, Brynle Barrett from the Laboratory of Photonics, Numerical Sciences and Nanosciences at the University of Bordeaux monitors an experiment to test the ‘weak equivalence principle’ – or why a feather in a vacuum falls as fast as a hammer. Credit: European Space Agency.

Using aircraft to replicate a zero-gravity environment was first proposed in 1950 by an aerospace engineer, Fritz Haber, and physicist Heinz Haber with NASA’s “reduced gravity” research program beginning in 1959. Like with Beings Systems, in the US these parabolic flights began with two-seater training jet aircraft before moving to larger aircraft like the Convair C-131 and then KC-135. These aircraft were dubbed vomit comets for the effect they had on many of the passengers.   

Today, US-based company Zero-G and French-based company Novespace provide parabolic flights for NASA and the European Space Agency respectively. These flights, which use larger aircraft such as the specially modified Boeing 727 (Zero-G) and the Airbus A310 (Novespace) are used for both scientific research and astronaut training, as well as space tourism. 

A parabolic flight reproduces the zero-gravity environment by repeatedly flying in alternating directions of up and down, with periods of level flight interspersed with the zero-gravity conditions. It is this dramatic change of direction that creates the feeling of weightlessness on board the aircraft. 

Beings Systems haven’t ruled out offering human zero-gravity experiences in the future but it is the scientific research opportunities that are driving them at the moment. 

“We're investigating an aircraft right now, a bigger aircraft, kind of like a mid-sized Learjet type arrangement and we are looking at actually doing [tourism experiences], but in particular, we want to use that for science experiment campaigns. So, dedicated research projects like packages of projects [investigating] really novel and important things we couldn't do previously,” said Blair. 

Currently, the most experienced member of the team, with over 70 parabolic flights to their name is Einstein the Zero-G Lama. Einstein will get plenty more opportunities to increase that number with Beings Systems looking to add two more small aircraft to their current fleet of two SIAI-Marchetti S.211 jets as well as a larger aircraft.

Einstein the Zero-G Lama, experiencing zero gravity during a parabolic "pushover" causing Einstein to "float". Credit: Beings Systems.