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When you think about how astronauts train for weightless environments you often think that space agencies like NASA or the Russian space agency have anti-gravity machines. The reality is that there is no special chamber they have on site that they turn on. Instead they have a series of different methods they use to help astronauts get a feel for weightlessness. One is a type of mine shaft elevator. Another way is to have astronauts train underwater. The most famous is the “vomit comet.”
The vomit comet is a plane used to simulate microgravity conditions. It does this by flying in parabolic flight paths. This is basically a series of very steep ascents and descents. This flight pattern makes it possible for astronauts and other passengers to briefly feel weightless. To make the process last longer the parabolic flight path is repeated several times.
The original vomit comets were two Stratforce KC-135A military planes. The planes were used to train astronauts from the 1950s until they were retired in 2004.These planes also have a claim to fame since they were used to film the weightless scenes for the movie Apollo 13. Several TV personalities have also tried it out to experience the feeling of weightlessness. Other space agencies such as the ESA and Russian space agency now have their own vomit comets. In general these are all military airplanes that have large cargo areas. This allows enough room for passengers to feel the effects of free-fall.
So what makes weightlessness in a vomit comet work? The main reason is free-fall. Free-fall is another name for a zero gravity or more accurately, microgravity environment. Free-fall is when an object falls solely under the influence of gravity. When applied to a person in a plane or elevator we see how weightlessness occurs. It is simply that both the person and the container they are in are falling at the exact same speed.
Planes like the vomit comet are important in the bid to help astronauts get ready from space. They provide the condition of free-fall that best mirrors the conditions astronauts experience in space. The interesting question is what new methods will be used in the future to better simulate microgravity. For now the idea of a space age gravity machine is out of the question but as technology for space travel advances so will the technology that helps train astronauts for the conditions in space.
We have written many articles about the Vomit Comet for Universe Today. Here’s an article about weightlessness, and here’s an article about zero gravity flight.
We’ve recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about the space shuttle. Listen here, Episode 127: The US Space Shuttle.