Specialised Space Systems Test and Microgravity Services

Is Bigger Better? - Parabolic Flights

Hello those contemplating weightlessness!

Everybody gets the idea that floating around in the back of a big plane can be used for testing. However, when it comes to floating around in a small plane (especially one without a canopy over your head) some people are unsure of whether testing is possible. Well it very much is! 

In this post we’re going to explore the question: Is Bigger Better? – Parabolic Aircraft


The History

When NASA first started doing parabolic flights during the Apollo program, it was for training astronauts, testing out new systems and for doing rehearsals of procedures that required multiple people.

The great thing about big passenger planes was that they could carry large things, like motorbikes! But, they could also fit a lot of things small things around the large things.

Through NASA, the parabolic setup using a big aircraft with people floating around became iconic. It was cool, people were enthralled by what they were seeing and hence the legend of the “Vomit Comet’ was born.

But, when it came to using 0G the world hadn’t been presented all the viable options.

Big Things for Big Aircraft - Small Things for Small

In today’s space industry, not everybody has motorcycles to test, and more interestingly few people have thought about whether their test needs to be large.


We’ve discovered that the size of an experiment is more of a design consideration than a test constraint. Even if your item is large, maybe the components that need 0g testing aren’t that big.


NASA has used parabolic flight for experiments that take up the whole aircraft and with ones that can be held in your hand.


So when it comes to whether or not you need a big aircraft, we’re finding that if you can make your experiment fit into a small one, or you know that it can be designed to be small to begin with, you can often get the results you need without a big plane, and without the strenuous time and effort overheads.

The Utility Tradeoff - 5x

Look big is cool, I love floating around in 0G, it’s fun! Some big things need big plane, however big doesn’t mean best and certainly doesn’t mean the most effective. Depending on your test aims big aircraft might actually be a bit of a limiting factor.


The largest utility of big aircraft is that they can hold a lot more and often require less time configuring and preparing experiments on the ground. You can test pretty much anything – just bring it onboard.


However when it comes to smaller aircraft, the biggest utility benefit is JUST that they can get about 5x the amount of work in that same amount of time!!!


Little Plane = Heavy Lift

That’s Right! When you get ready for a big parabolic flight, one of the major limitations is that you’re sharing it with 10 other punters. Whilst this is great for videos, it’s a massive detraction from how effective the mission is going to be for you.


Flying with others means that you are limited by the collective ‘mission average’, which means you cannot collect nearly as much data or do as many test as on a small aircraft, and hey if this works for you, do it. In a smaller aircraft, ultimately you call the shots.


The last flight we planned was originally to do 45 exposures of 0G, it was going to take us less than 45mins. Then, less than 24 hours before the flight, we optimised the mission. We realised that it would be really beneficial to verify that the customer’s telemetry and systems worked properly, otherwise we might be flying 45 parabolas for no reason. So we had a little chat with ourselves and changed the mission to 2 flights, right then and there. This would never happen on a big flight – you are at their whim, not the other way around.



Flexibility is key when it comes to mission effectiveness, and you’re just not going to get that in a big aircraft. 

On the right I’ve labelled some trade off points and below I’ve listed some experiments NASA has done that probably don’t require a large aircraft.


My intent of this post isn’t to say big aircraft don’t work, they really do. However small aircraft are more flexible, are able get more data through more flights, can do more in the time you have, and still allow you to float around in an aircraft. They’re also easier to plan for and can satisfy your requirements just as well. The poor things are just a little smaller, but this can be catered for.

Small NASA Experiments
(that probably don't need big plane testing)

NASA 2018 – 2020 Flight Opportunities – Click Me for the link to many!


University of California in Berkeley

A new additive manufacturing technique will be tested to determine its ability to print both biomaterial and engineering components in the same machine during microgravity conditions.


A “lab on a chip” consisting of a programmable microfluidic analyzer will be tested to assess its ability to perform clinical assays that could be crucial for human health in space.


IMEC USA Nanoelectronics Design Center Inc. in Houston

A diagnostic and bioanalytical monitoring solution for astronauts aboard deep space exploration missions.


Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida

Real-time testing of biological changes during suborbital launch and landing conditions and hyper/microgravity.


Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne

The mechanical system of a plant incubator will be tested to validate its operation in microgravity and inform development of a larger-scale space farming system.


Mango Materials Inc. in Oakland, California

A membrane-based bioreactor will be tested to evaluate, adapt, and ultimately optimize gas delivery methods that may enable sustainable in-situ 3D printing in space.


University of California in Davis

A suite of sensors and a display technology will be evaluated to determine the system’s effectiveness as a non-pharmaceutical countermeasure for space adaptation sickness.


Purdue University

A handheld, automated video control system will be tested as a possible tool for suborbital flight experiments that rely on video to monitor operations, record data, and aid post-flight technology assessments.


Look, I could keep going but you can also find them here at the NASA site.