TCD Students Perform Zero Gravity Experiment with European Space Agency

Posted on: 11 August 2005

Four TCD theoretical physics undergraduate students have returned from Bordeaux having completed a physics experiment in zero gravity with the European Space Agency (ESA) last month. David Barrett, Mathew Dolan, Seán Kelly and E.J.Daly are the first Irish team to be selected by ESA, which gives 30 student teams from Europe and Canada the opportunity to experiment in zero gravity. The students’ research experiment was chosen from over 90 proposals sent into the ESA for selection.

The group flew in a 30-year-old Boeing Airbus A300 prototype which performed a parabolic manoeuvre, which involves pulling the plane up to a 47-degree angle at maximum speed before free falling from the sky through 4000 feet. During this drop, there is a 20 second period of weightlessness on board allowing the students to perform their experiments, which are the first microgravity experiments of their kind to be carried out.

The students formed a soap film in a cubic wire frame and then injected liquid into the Plateau Borders (film intersections) during microgravity. This allowed them to observe the transition from a dry film configuration to a wet configuration. The research is the continuation of wireframe experiments conducted by Belgian physicist, Plateau in the 1840s.

The students are studying wet soap films as part of a wider programme of foam physics research. Wet foams are not well understood as they are nearly impossible to study under gravity because of gravity-driven drainage of liquid between the bubbles. Wet foams are important in the materials industry- metallic wet foams have a high strength to mass ratio, ten times greater than steel.