Since 1993, the Canadian Space Agency has been using a special aircraft, the Falcon 20, to conduct weightlessness experiments without having to go into space. The experiments are carried out with the collaboration of the Flight Research Laboratory of the Canada National Research Council, owner of this aircraft and in 2004, the CSA performed ten experiments on board the twin-jet airplane.
A microgravity environment is created inside the aircraft when it flies in a parabolic pattern in the sky of 4,000 to 8,000 metres in altitude. The effect of gravity is nullified for a period of 15 to 25 seconds, as the aircraft rounds the summit of the arc and for part of its descent. This may seem too brief a period. But the Falcon 20 offers an economical alternative to space missions for conducting experiments in various fields: fluid sciences, material sciences, and life sciences.
The Falcon 20 can fly several arcs, one after the other, allowing researchers to determine the effects of weightlessness on their experiments. This gives them the opportunity to verify working hypotheses and to determine whether or not it is worthwhile to continue adapting their studies for a space laboratory. The parabolic flights can also be used to test equipment intended for the International Space Station.
In April 2004, Professor Richard Wassersug of Dalhousie University, and a team of students conducted an experiment on the Falcon 20. With several amphibious animals onboard, they studied their behaviour in the weightless environment. During the experiment, the airplane flew a series of three parabolas. Prof. Wassersug noted that a snake that was accustomed to moving on the ground does not react in the same way as a lizard that is used to jumping and gliding from tree to tree. This study lays the groundwork for new hypotheses about how humans sense and adapt to a microgravity environment.
The Falcon 20 is not like a regular airliner with seats and movie screens! The modified interior was designed to meet the needs of users. Also, its jet engines and hydraulic system have been modified for extra power to enable it to fly in parabolic arcs.
Through agreements with space agencies like NASA and ESA, Canadian researchers have access to other aircraft: DC-9, T-33, KC-135 and Airbus A300. But only the Falcon 20 is available here in Canada.