When does a normal jet plane help researchers study space? When it flies in parabolas! Space programs throughout the world use specially trained pilots to test the effects of weightlessness on people, plants, animals, and equipment.
A Quadratic Equation for Weightlessness
During a parabolic flight, people and objects on a plane alternately experience high gravity and low gravity. The amount of gravity they experience depends on the pilot’s flight path: the steeper the parabola, the higher the highs and the lower the lows. In a typical parabolic maneuver, the plane accelerates rapidly while traveling upward at a 45-degree angle. At the top of its climb, the pilot allows the plane to enter into free fall, during which every person and thing on board the aircraft experiences the feeling of weightlessness, floating away from the floor. The plane’s motion creates an illusion of “zero gravity.” The period of zero gravity only lasts about 20-30 seconds at a time, so the planes usually fly 30 or more parabolic maneuvers in a single flight. Because of the high potential for motion sickness in the air, these planes have been dubbed “vomit comets.”
You don’t have to be an astronaut or a scientist to experience parabolic flight. NASA sponsors a Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program open to students and teachers who design and propose experiments to conduct onboard. It’s also possible to buy tickets for commercial flights on reduced gravity aircraft. The European Space Agency sells tickets for rides on its parabolic flights. The same zero gravity planes that NASA uses sometimes tour the United States. Tourists in cities like Las Vegas can spend $5,000 a piece for a chance to experience weightlessness aboard a parabolic flight.
See for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LWek1zQa_Hg
Watch the videos below for a peek aboard zero gravity flights.