One of the world’s most demanding flight programmes is set to resume on Tuesday, 5 May, when Bordeaux Mérignac-based Novespace resumes microgravity flying in its new “Zero-G” Airbus A310.
Theaircraft replaces an A300 worn out by flying more than 18 years of service during which it undertook more than 13,000 high-stress parabolic manoeuvres, each giving onboard scientists and astronauts in training about 20sec of valuable time in microgravity.
Wednesday’s sortie over the Bay of Biscay will involve 31 such manoeuvres, with 40 scientists from the European Space Agency, the French space agency (CNES) and Germany’s DLR aerospace research agency on board. Each parabola involves pulling up to 1.8g in a steep climb that gains some 8,200ft (2,500m) in altitude in 30s, then cruising over the hump and diving back down to resume level flight.
More than 13,000 parabolas in nearly 18 years of service wore out the old Zero-G, leading Novespace – a subsidiary of CNES – to retire it in October 2014; the aircraft now features at the Cologne airport aviation museum.
Earlier this year, Novespace took delivery of the A310 (pictured below in Novespace colours) – which formerly served with the German air force VIP fleet – following extensive modification by Lufthansa Technik in Hamburg. According to director general Thierry Gharib, the A300 remained airworthy, but maintenance of such an old aircraft – it was the third built by Airbus – was becoming difficult to impossible: the high-stress flight pattern calls for frequent structural inspections, and some airframe spare parts were becoming impossible to obtain.
The A310 now features a bespoke flight control system, to provide even more precise control of microgravity conditions. And, adds Gharib, it will eventually provide up to 50% more onboard electrical power, a big plus for modern, power-hungry scientific work.
A parallel programme of “weightlessness simulation” flights for fee-paying members of the public will resume from 17 June.
New Zero-G: more precise, more powerful
Typical microgravity parabolic flight path
Not your typical orientation: the A300 in action