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Researchers take to Zero-G ‘Vomit Comet’ to study steam-powered spacecraft

6 July 2017

Dr Tony Robinson was back at his desk in Trinity College Dublin this week after experiencing weightlessness on board the Zero-G ‘vomit comet’ aircraft flying over the Atlantic.

Dr Robinson was conducting experiments on how water evaporates in space for the European Space Agency, with his work focused on the potential of steam for powering next-gen spacecraft. The outcome of his research could, in time, be used on board the International Space Station.

Dr Robinson is a researcher at CONNECT – the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Future Networks – and Associate Professor in Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering in Trinity. He is part of an elite team of scientists and engineers who advise and guide the European Space Agency.

The Zero-G ‘vomit comet’ is a specially adapted aircraft with a padded interior that is decked out with scientific instruments. It gets its name from the high number of passengers who experience nausea and air sickness. Dr Robinson and his fellow passengers were given a scopolamine injection before they boarded the plane to combat the effects of the flight on the body. Their experiments took place on a flight route over the Atlantic.

The aircraft achieves zero gravity by making a sharp ascent from 24,000 feet to 32,000 feet at an angle of 45 degrees, before levelling off. At this point passengers experience 25 to 30 seconds of weightlessness, during which they float like space astronauts. After these few seconds, the nose of the plane tilts downward at 45 degrees to complete the final stage, before levelling off to a normal altitude. Over the course of two hours Dr Robinson experienced 30 of these sequences, which are known as parabolas.

After his experience on board, Dr Robinson and his team have to work through terabytes of data to make sense of the information they have gathered.

Dr Robinson said: “If we’re going to travel to other planets, we’re going to need more than solar panels on spacecraft. Huge amounts of power are needed for propulsion and steam has great potential, but we know very little about how it behaves in space.”

“Each time we boil the kettle for a cup of tea, we see the power of steam. Every material is affected by gravity so, if you attempt to boil water in space, it’s going to be different to the situation on earth. Things happen in space that don't happen here and we don’t understand why.”

 

Listen to Dr Tony Robinson talk about his experience on Today FM and read more about the experience in The Times.

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