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Defying Gravity

FREE-FLOATING Researchers float aboard a Zero-G aircraft. They are conducting an experiment in a zero-gravity environment. STEVE BOXALL—ZERO-G

In space, there is no up or down. Without the gravitational pull that we experience on Earth, astronauts and everything else aboard a spacecraft float freely.

Earthlings can experience the sensation of zero gravity without blasting into space. How? A zero-gravity flight. When an airplane flies in a series of arcs called parabolas, a temporary zero-gravity environment is created. Everything in the plane floats, even passengers.

“There is truly no other feeling like it on Earth,” Michelle Peters told TIME for Kids. She is director of research and education for Zero-G. The company organizes zero-gravity flights for scientists and teachers. It also takes passengers as young as 8 on flights that are just for fun.

Space Science

Gravity has an impact on everything from the human body and mind to the behavior of plants and the way machines run. Space travel is expensive and risky. But zero-gravity flights let scientists conduct experiments in an environment that mimics mimic OKSUN70—GETTY IMAGES to imitate (verb) Theo mimicked a dog by crawling on his hands and knees. the conditions of space.

On its research trips, Zero-G flies about 30 parabolas. Each of these arcs creates a period of weightlessness that lasts about 30 seconds. Nikolaus Kuhn of the University of Basel, in Switzerland, flew with Zero-G. He was conducting an experiment about soil and the flow of water on Mars. The Red Planet has about one-third of the gravity that Earth has. This means water flows more slowly on Mars. By making the parabolas less steep, Zero-G pilots can create the feeling of Martian gravity.

Flying with Zero-G has been essential to Kuhn’s research. “It is the only opportunity, other than going to Mars, to simulate simulate FSTOP—GETTY IMAGES to reproduce the appearance or effects of (verb) We simulate crashes to test vehicle safety. movement of water and sediment sediment WESTEND61—GETTY IMAGES matter that settles to the bottom of a liquid (noun) There was sediment on the floor of the swimming pool. as it would be on Mars,” he told TFK.

For decades, NASA used zero-gravity flights to prepare and train astronauts. “I have not been to space,” Peters of Zero-G says. “But I have been told by astronauts that [zero-gravity] feels exactly the same.”

As humans continue to explore the universe beyond Planet Earth, zero-gravity flights will remain an important—and fun—tool. “It never gets old,” Peters says. “I would do it every weekend for the rest of my life if I could.”