How would you cope in weightless conditions? Imagine an Airbus A300 airliner flying full speed 6000 meters high, then pulling up to the steepest climb before plunging into a freefall that lasts for over 20 seconds in a virtual 'space flight'. It's as close to the real thing as you can get without leaving the Earth's atmosphere.
Not for the faint-hearted, ESA’s ‘Zero-G’ Airbus has been dubbed the ‘vomit comet’ by researchers thanks to its stomach-churning roller-coaster ride. The specially-adapted Airbus A300 flies parabolas, a specific track that gives between 20 and 22 seconds of weightlessness during free fall, before pulling out of the dive and gravity abruptly resumes.
Virtual space flight
It’s a priceless laboratory-in-the-sky, providing training for future astronauts and a test-bed for basic science and new technology, with the potential to reshape our lives. 22 seconds may not seem much, but the plane flies 30 parabolas in the course of its two-hour flight, and repeats the mission each day for the next two days – giving the equivalent of a 30-minute flight orbit.
During these seconds, Hydro metallurgists carried out experiments on the behavior of special aluminium alloys. And they did it over and over again: 30 times in the space of two days last week.
Benefits for metallurgy
So what do Hydro customers gain from micro-gravity, or µg, research? Wilfried Bender from Hydro’s competence centre for casting, aluminium research & development, explains:
“Hydro is a major supplier of premium foundry alloys and engine castings, so we need reliable thermo-physical data on our new alloys. Micro-gravity enables us to learn much more about their surface tension and viscosity,” he says, going on to explain that getting away from the earth’s magnetic pull enables you to discover things about the metals’ behaviours that wouldn’t be possible on the ground.
Hydro is the first company to do industrial research during parabolic flights. Our cooperation with DLR, the German Aerospace Center on micro-gravity experiments has been publicly recognized as a pioneer achievement by Western Germany’s first astronaut, Dr Ulf Merbold. He praised the innovative spirit and foresight Hydro proved by cooperating in the project.
The pioneering work wasn’t as expensive as you might think. “This was a start-up initiative subsidized by DLR, so our debut participation was for free besides our own costs,” says Bender.
Expanding the scope
This time, the third parabolic flight series with Hydro is meant to intensify the use of this method, inviting more industry players from the Ruhr region in Germany for 3 days with experiments, 22 seconds each. “The goal is to build a bridge from space aviation to industrial research,” says DLR project manager Peter Bütfering.
The project name, ISS Ruhr Lab, links these parabolic flights to the International Space Station – although they don’t come close to getting into orbit.
“The first flights provided some useful experience for improving the set-up in the series ahead”, explains Gerd-Ulrich Grün, Bender’s research colleague in Hydro’s parabolic flight R&D. “These are quite unusual working conditions in which to work,” he says. “You have to heat up the alloy sample, solidify it to castable status – and measure and document the behaviour, all in the space of 22 seconds!” he says.
The benefits of the research are expected to promote the design of improved casting processes.
Grün continues: “The flight procedure and its processing are well adjusted. But now we will work with a brighter video camera, with a higher resolution and frequency. This should give us additional data which are even more precise and reliable.”
And in the long run, it could help to improve the engine block of your next generation car – even if you won’t be taking it into micro-gravity or driving 6 kilometers high.