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Kingston Team to Float High-Tech Kite in Zero Gravity


Four Kingston University engineering students are getting a taste of life in space taking part in a European Space Agency (ESA) flight that recreates the weightlessness felt by astronauts once they leave the Earth’s atmosphere. The four have been finding out what it is like to float in zero gravity aboard a special ESA aircraft in Bordeaux, France while carrying out experiments on a lightweight solar kite being developed by Kingston researchers.

The team is one of 30 from across Europe being given the chance to experience zero gravity on a specially converted Airbus. Students will find out just what it feels like to work in space as the plane climbs and dives in a series of manoeuvres that release the Earth’s gravitational pull, known as a parabolic flight.

After undergoing ground training and safety checks, the four Kingston students are taking it in turns to fly on the aircraft and test out the prototype solar kite. The brainchild of University astronautics experts, the kite has been designed to take pictures from space. Its creators hope it will be able to be launched by rocket and deployed in orbit. Kingston’s student team is testing out the moving parts that will enable the kite to unfold once it gets into space.

Aerospace engineering and astronautics student Claire Etherington, who is leading the team, said the opportunity to work with ESA was extremely exciting so early on in her career. “We are over the moon to get a place on these flights,” she said. “This is a very technically demanding project and there is nowhere else in Europe we could create zero gravity to test out the kite.”

The parabolic flights have been offered as part of a student competition since 1994. As well as giving entrants the chance to perform experiments in space-like conditions, they also aim to encourage them to consider a career in the space sector. Principal lecturer in astronautics at Kingston’s School of Engineering Dr Chris Welch praised the team’s hard work and determination in securing a place on the ESA flights. “It’s fantastic they have got this far,” he said. “This is entirely down to their own hard work. They drew up the proposal, raised the funding and will deliver these experiments by themselves. This is a once in a lifetime chance for them.

“We all rely on products and services in our everyday lives that have been developed in space, including weather forecasting and mobile phones,” Dr Welch said. “Parabolic flights are a cheaper and highly effective alternative for testing designs rather than launching into space. Hopefully the opportunity will lead to Kingston University’s solar kite getting off the ground more quickly than potential competitors.”

Michael Williams | alfa
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