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Floating their idea - students conduct experiments in zero gravity


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External Sites:
-Student Parabolic Flight Campaign
(Imperial College is not responsible for the content of these external internet sites)

For immediate use
Wednesday 20 July 2005

Students from Imperial College London join teams from across Europe this month to test experiments while floating in zero gravity.

Taking part in the European Space Agency's Student Parabolic Flight Campaign, the teams are spending July in Bordeaux, France, ground testing their experiments in preparation for zero gravity trials at the end of the month.

Floating student

Imperial's team of four maths and physics undergraduates have put together a series of tests to study how pilots would operate under conditions of sudden weightlessness, for example if an aeroplane stalls.

The team, one of only three from the UK to win a place this year, designed a simple computer programme that will test their concentration and reaction times as the aircraft they are in changes from double to zero gravity conditions.

The programme consists of basic computer-based tests such as keeping an arrow on a dot in the middle of a circle, hitting the space bar when the dot turns red and spatial tests such as identifying the longest line out of several choices. Team leader Melissa Daly explains:

"These are very easy under normal conditions - we want to see how easy we find them when we are suddenly operating without gravity."

The tests could be used to train pilots to deal with extreme conditions according to team member Victor Lim, who expects the team members will find their accuracies fall sharply when they first experience weightlessness but will see them rise as they acclimatise. He says:

"If that turns out to be true, it means that if pilots train enough they can get used to being in that situation and could remain efficient even if they are suddenly subjected to weightlessness."

The students will spend two hours in the ESA's Airbus A300, which achieves zero gravity by accelerating and then reducing engine thrust so that it goes into freefall. During their time on the aircraft they will experience weightlessness 30 times. Melissa says:

"It's going to be unlike anything we've done before. I know some people suffer from sickness but it's not something I'm too worried about - though maybe I should be! The chance to experience weightlessness isn't something a lot of people are offered and it's the main reason I got involved in the campaign so I'm going to make the most of it."

Professor Richard Thompson of Imperial's Department of Physics, supporter of the team's entry, comments:

"The group has worked very hard to be given this opportunity and I think their success demonstrates the commitment and ability of our students. The experience of designing and carrying out their own experiments using the ESA's unique facilities will be extremely valuable for them. I'm looking forward to hearing the results of their project and also how they cope with weightlessness."

The Campaign, now in its eleventh year, is designed to give university students the opportunity to experience real space experimentation, thereby encouraging them to pursue a career in space science.

For further information contact:

Abigail Smith
Press Officer
Imperial College London
Tel: 020 7594 6701
Email:abigail.smith@imperial.ac.uk

Notes to editors:

More information on the European Space Agency's Student Parabolic Flight Campaign is at www.estec.esa.nl/outreach/parabolic/

Imperial's team members are:

Melissa Daly, physics
Kejia Zhu, physics
Victor Lim, maths
Edouard Rabate, maths

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