Microgravity tests on the 35th DLR Parabolic Flight Campaign

22 October 2020

Carrying water to space is extremely costly, thus recycling of it should be improved. On Earth, water management is also essential, e.g. to control humidity in buildings and where fresh water is scarce. Malica Schmidt draws lessons from nature to develop multi-functional surfaces to enhance water capture for reuse, combined with other desirable properties. Malica is supported by an EPSRC National Productivity Investment Fund studentship and is a CNIE PhD candidate co-advised by Marc-Olivier Coppens (Chemical Engineering) and Marcos Cruz (Bartlett).

The novel Nature-Inspired, Multi-Functional Surfaces (NIMFS), were designed to absorb excess atmospheric moisture produced by astronauts’ indoors activities and transport it passively to improve existing and future life support systems on the International Space Station (ISS) and to missions to Moon, Mars, and beyond. Previous ground-based experiments in the CNIE’s labs on designs manufactured using a Nanoscribe “3D microprinter”, suggest increased performance of NIMFS in microgravity. Parabolic flights, on which microgravity is achieved during each apex of the parabola, allow to test this hypothesis.

From 16th to 24th September 2020, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) Space Administration organised the 35th Parabolic Flight Campaign with the participation of eight teams during three flight days in Paderborn-Lippstadt Airport. Among them was the physical science experiment of Malica in collaboration with two departments from UCL, the DLR's Space Microbiology Research Group led by Prof. Dr. Ralf Möller, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT). (A full list of participants and projects in German can be found here.)

In these flights, microgravity is achieved by flying a series of 31 parabolas per day in the Airbus A310 Zero-G, owned by the French company Novespace. During these parabolas, Malica and the experiment experienced 1.8 g during pull up of the airplane’s nose to 50 degrees, 22 seconds of microgravity when the pilots throttle the engine back, and a second 1.8 g phase when pulling down until in steady flight.

For Malica and her team, this flight was the first of a series of experiments in microgravity, which may be used as a bridge to the ISS. It was also the first DLR flight during the Covid-19 pandemic. The originally scheduled flight in Bordeaux, France, had been postponed last-minute, but a later campaign flying from Paderborn materialised. In a feat of resilience and endurance, Malica, the team, and the other researchers had to deal with difficult, volatile conditions as institutions and labs were closed, but they took the opportunity of partial (re-)openings to make the impossible happen.

Apart from the synthesis of the NIMFS at UCL CNIE and KIT, Malica designed and assembled a flight-proof setup, including components manufactured with exceptional assistance from workshops and research technicians at UCL Bartlett and at the DLR and their administration’s support. At last, months of preparation were put to good use for Malica to get the times right to carry out experiments with military precision, socially distanced under the challenging conditions of the parabolic flight rollercoaster. A total of 35 minutes of microgravity research has been accumulated, which is currently being analysed. Through these great interdisciplinary and international collaborations, the campaign became an extraordinary success.

Microgravity tests on the 35th DLR Parabolic Flight Campaign

Image by Malica Schmidt

Image by Malica Schmidt

Image by Nicola Cortioux