New Space and Tech

ESA’s First ‘Fly Your Thesis!’ Campaign Gives Students a Taste of Space

By Keith Cowing
April 8, 2013
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ESA’s ‘Fly Your Thesis!’ programme made its successful debut during ESA’s 51st Parabolic Flight Campaign, held 25 October to 5 November. Four student teams from five European countries took advantage of this new educational initiative to conduct microgravity experiments on the Airbus A300 ‘Zero G’ aircraft.

‘Fly Your Thesis!’ was introduced by ESA’s Education Office in close coordination with ESA’s Directorate of Human Spaceflight in 2008. It provides students with a unique opportunity to perform scientific experiments in microgravity as part of their Masters or PhD theses. The first participants were chosen in January 2009, after a rigorous selection process.
A group from the University of Muenster, Germany, studied the behaviour of tiny particles under different illumination conditions in order to improve understanding of dust storms on Mars. Students from the Open University in the UK and the University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis, France, simulated the loose surface material on asteroids as a precursor to sample-return missions.

A group from the University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway, investigated the flow birefringence of clay nanoparticles in water, research with potential applications such as the prevention of catastrophic landslides.

Another team from the Autonomous University of Barcelona and the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, Spain, recorded the behaviour of enzymes that modify assimilation of drugs by the human body.

After months of assembling and testing their experiments, the 15 university students arrived in Bordeaux, France, on 25 October. Over the next few days, they completed the assembly of their experiment racks and, on 28 October, these were loaded onto the Airbus.

With all safety checks completed, the first flight took off from Bordeaux on 3 November. After heading out over the Atlantic Ocean, the students were cleared to switch on their experiments and prepare for the first of 31 parabolas, each providing about 20 seconds of microgravity.

Two additional flights took place on 4 and 5 November, giving the students enough time to complete their scientific investigations and enjoy the unique experience of microgravity. All of the experiments worked well and each team collected a large amount of data that will be immensely valuable in completing their academic studies and research work.

The scientific content of the students’ projects, the quality of their experiment racks and their professional behaviour during the campaign were all praised by the organisers of the ‘Fly Your Thesis!’ programme. They were also favourably impressed by the way in which the students interacted with the scientific researchers and with each other.

After the campaign was completed, many of them expressed the desire to pursue a career involving microgravity research. All agreed that the experience of microgravity was ‘awesome’.

The ‘Fly Your Thesis!’ programme is supported by ESA’s Education Office, ESA’s Directorate of Human Spaceflight and members of the European Low Gravity Research Association (ELGRA).

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.