York researchers float in zero gravity aboard final Bordeaux flight

York University researchers floated in zero gravity Friday aboard an airplane modified to simulate weightlessness, in order to investigate why astronauts become disoriented in space, and what can be done about it.

The research, funded by the Canadian Space Agency, took place aboard the same airplane that hosted a zero-gravity surgery earlier in the week, which made international headlines.

Right: Researcher Heather Jenkin

The team, from York’s Centre for Vision Research, has been conducting experiments on the flights from Bordeaux, France, aboard a specially-designed Airbus 300. The plane flies in such a manner as to provide brief periods of microgravity, making 30 of these manoeuvres, or parabolas, during each flight.

“Basically, we are looking at what happens to astronauts’ perception of up and down when we take away the cue of gravity,” said team leader Laurence Harris, professor of psychology in York’s Faculty of Health. “They can easily become disoriented; we’re looking at ways to combat this.”

“Being in microgravity is like flying,” says Michael Jenkin, a professor in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering who was part of the team conducting the experiments. “You feel completely free of the world – at least for 20 seconds or so.”

Left: The specially-designed Airbus 300

Jenkin and York colleagues Heather Jenkin, Richard Dyde and Jim Zacher worked alongside Professor Joe McIntyre of the Université René Descartes (Paris 5) to gather preliminary data and test instruments during the interludes of weightlessness, which last 22 seconds each.

It’s a prelude to experiments that will be conducted with astronauts on board the International Space Station next year.

“We are collecting more data than expected, and the software has been deployed successfully on three different experimental platforms. Everything looks good for data collection on the ISS,” Jenkin says.

Harris noted that the researchers had access to equipment that is identical to that on board the space station.

“We can therefore make sure that all the instruments and procedures work properly, which can be tricky in zero gravity,” Harris says. “This is exactly the same strategy as used at the other end of the plane where they are testing the ability to carry out surgical procedures in space – test it out in brief periods of microgravity before taking those procedures into the world of permanent microgravity.”

But is it dangerous? “It can be uncomfortable, and it can also cause motion sickness,” Harris says. “We had team members spotting the other members at all times during the experiment to ensure no one gets hurt. Quite honestly, I’d really like to be going up there, too. It’s not something many of us will get to experience in the course of a lifetime.”