Irish secondary school students aim to test experiment in zero gravity

22 Mar 2019

An experiment aboard a NASA zero-gravity flight. Image: Robert Markowitz/NASA

Students of secondary schools in Ireland are to be given the chance to see their experiment tested in zero gravity for future space exploration.

Before astronauts can experience the weightlessness of zero gravity in space, most will have travelled aboard special flights that, when airborne, pitch up at a considerable angle, achieve zero gravity at the so-called parabola and then descend quite sharply. Aside from it being quite fun to experience weightlessness, it also helps scientists better understand how the human body and experiments operate at zero gravity.

Now, the University of Limerick’s (UL) Irish Composites Centre (IComp) is working to get the experiments of Irish secondary-level students aboard one such zero-gravity flight.

Future Human

This October, Project PoSSUM (Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere) will fly a number of microgravity flights in Canada that will include a number of different experiments.

The experiment chosen as part of an application process will be from teams of students aged between the ages of 15 and 17, which either must be led by a girl or have at least two girls on the team. The flight itself will undertake 18 parabolas, whereby each will see the experiments undergo zero gravity for between 15 and 20 seconds.

While the students won’t get to travel on board the aircraft, their experiment will be handled and controlled by a researcher wearing a pressurised intravehicular activity spacesuit, something that has never been done before.

Celebrating diversity

This initiative runs parallel to the PoSSUM 13 International Microgravity Flight Challenge, an effort to celebrate the Mercury 13 – the first team of women in the US to undergo physiological tests for spaceflight – and the achievements of women in space science.

The competition is being led by IComp’s project manager and occasional contributor to, Dr Norah Patten, who said of its introduction: “This is an opportunity for students to develop skills in STEM, teamwork, research and creativity – all of which are skills that are required throughout our careers.

“And what better place to develop these skills than a microgravity flight opportunity! I truly hope it sparks the interest and imagination of these students.”

The competition is set to run until Tuesday 14 May, with the top five entries being invited to UL on 23 May to present their experiment and ideas to a panel of experts, where the winner will be selected. The winning team will work with experts at IComp and UL to prepare the experiment for the October flight.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic