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Instrumentation and measurement

Instrumentation and measurement

Doing physics in microgravity environments

28 Oct 2019 James Dacey

In this month’s Physics World Stories podcast, Andrew Glester discovers why microgravity environments are such interesting places to do physics experiments. Perhaps the ultimate microgravity laboratory is the international space station (ISS), where astronauts carry out experiments designed by scientists across the globe. But microgravity environments can also be created here on Earth, via parabolic flights and drop towers that can achieve microgravity conditions within the gravitational field of the Earth.

In the episode, Glester travels to Swindon to meet Libby Jackson, the human exploration programme manager at the UK Space Agency. Jackson explains why removing gravity from the equation can allow researchers to probe a range of questions, not necessarily related to space science. She herself, has flown on a so-called “vomit comet” and she describes the experience of adapting to weightlessness while trying to control a science experiment.

Marco Marengo, a thermal engineering research at the University of Brighton, UK, is another frequent flyer on parabolic flights. He describes some of the physics experiments he has been involved with and the process through which researchers can apply for time at these facilities. Unsurprisingly, he always finds time to have some fun while weightless in addition to doing the serious science.

Within Europe, researchers requiring a microgravity environment regularly visit the ZARM drop-tower, located in Bremen, Germany. Just shy of 150m in length, this facility comprises an experimental capsule housed inside a long steel tube. In the video below, you can see Paxi – the European Space Agency’s educational mascot – falling down this drop. The ESA website has full details of how to apply to use parabolic flights, drop towers and other related facilities.

While researchers are less likely to be making a trip themselves to the ISS, the options for sending your experiment there are expanding. Jackson explains how it is now possible to buy time on the ISS through the ICE Cubes service, which involves launching your experiment in a 10cm3 container. Companies can also pay for time on the the ISS securing the rights to any resulting intellectual property.

Glester will be back with another episode of Physics World Stories next month. In the meantime you can listen to our more regular podcast Physics World Weekly. You can subscribe to both programmes on Apple podcasts or your chosen podcast provider.

Support for this podcast came from Pfeiffer Vacuum.



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