Space research aboard infamous 'puke plane' has its ups and downs

How do droplets form in space? Engineering undergrads are finding out.

Mechanical engineering undergraduate Ryan Baily gets a lift in this video taken aboard the NRC's Falcon 20 aircraft.


A team of mechanical engineering researchers won a spot aboard an aircraft commonly known as Canada’s “puke plane” to test how droplets from a 3D printer form in zero-gravity conditions.

The researchers in surface science professor Prashant Waghmare’s iSSELab won the spot aboard the infamous Ottawa-based Falcon 20 aircraft as part of a national competition called Students for the Exploration and Development of Space.

This research has important applications for work in space. Learning how 3D printing works in microgravity and zero-gravity conditions is a priority for the Canadian Space Agency. Having 3D printers aboard the International Space Station, for example, will make it easier to repair the station or perform work in the station.

To replicate gravitational conditions of space, the pilots perform parabolic manoeuvres so researchers can run experiments to learn about microgravity and zero gravity conditions.

The flight consisted of a climb from 11,000 feet to 20,000 feet at a 40-degree angle, creating a force of 2G. At the top of the ascent, the students experience near-zero gravity for just over 20 seconds until the plane began its descent.

Upon analyzing the data, the team found that zero gravity did affect the formation of droplets extruded by a 3D printer. The droplets formed in microgravity had a lower contact angle than those deposited on Earth. That is, they were a bit rounder on the plate. What’s more, the tip that forms at the top of droplets was shaped at a lower angle, which means that the droplet was a bit pointier.

During the flight, mechanical engineering graduates Ryan Baily was responsible for controlling six pieces of software that controlled five pieces of equipment.

“It was hard on my body,” said Bailey, adding he and fellow mechanical engineering graduates Muhammed Khan and Farhad Ismail were all affected by motion sickness. “I had to begin recording right at the beginning of the 2G pull. Then right before microgravity, I had to form the droplet and then stop the recording at the end of the 2G descent. During the level flight between climbs, I had to move the dosing unit and the stages for the next run.”

Not only was Baily fighting against 2G forces for this work, he was also, of course, strapped into his seat.

“We’re happy that we have a functional and proven system and a trained operator,” says Aleksey Baldygin, the iSSELab laboratory supervisor. “We only did seven runs and we’d like to do more.”

The team is in talks with the Canadian Space Agency about arranging future flights. In the meantime they’re working to consolidate their software so the operators have less to manage during future flights.

Waghmare said they’re looking for others to join the ride.

“We are seeking talented, bright, motivated undergraduate students to get involved in this research,” he said. “This is the best opportunity to get hands-on experience for microgravity experiments and the challenges associated with such experiments. It might be someone’s only chance to experience microgravity.”