The dynamics of parabolic flight: flight characteristics and passenger percepts

Acta Astronaut. 2008 Sep;63(5-6):594-602. doi: 10.1016/j.actaastro.2008.04.009.


Flying a parabolic trajectory in an aircraft is one of the few ways to create freefall on Earth, which is important for astronaut training and scientific research. Here we review the physics underlying parabolic flight, explain the resulting flight dynamics, and describe several counterintuitive findings, which we corroborate using experimental data. Typically, the aircraft flies parabolic arcs that produce approximately 25 seconds of freefall (0 g) followed by 40 seconds of enhanced force (1.8 g), repeated 30-60 times. Although passengers perceive gravity to be zero, in actuality acceleration, and not gravity, has changed, and thus we caution against the terms "microgravity" and "zero gravity. " Despite the aircraft trajectory including large (45°) pitch-up and pitch-down attitudes, the occupants experience a net force perpendicular to the floor of the aircraft. This is because the aircraft generates appropriate lift and thrust to produce the desired vertical and longitudinal accelerations, respectively, although we measured moderate (0.2 g) aft-ward accelerations during certain parts of these trajectories. Aircraft pitch rotation (average 3°/s) is barely detectable by the vestibular system, but could influence some physics experiments. Investigators should consider such details in the planning, analysis, and interpretation of parabolic-flight experiments.