A Flight to Weightlessness from Dübendorf

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The fourth parabolic flight takes off today from Dübendorf airfield.
The fourth parabolic flight takes off today from Dübendorf airfield.
The fourth parabolic flight organized by the UZH Space Hub takes off today from Dübendorf airfield. A reorganization taking into account Corona safety measures has made this possible. On board is an experiment that could help to attenuate massive inflammatory reactions of the immune system that happen in severe cases of Covid-19.

Safety measures imposed in the context of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic have severely restricted most research activities, as well as business and social lives. But despite the ongoing situation, the Swiss Skylab Foundation and the Space Hub of the University of Zurich were able to reorganize the planned parabolic flight campaign and implement the required safety concept. The zero-gravity research flight will take off today, 11 June, from the former military airfield in Dübendorf - under full Corona protective measures.

The Airbus A310 will be carrying eight experiments from the fields of medicine, astrophysics and geology, including several from UZH as well as one each from the universities of Bern and Basel, ETH Zurich and the Eurac Research Institute (Italy). One experiment is the fruit of research collaboration between the University of Zurich and NASA, with the involvement of the University of Wisconsin.

Suppressed immune response to combat severe cases of Covid-19

The experiments that Oliver Ullrich, professor of anatomy at UZH and director of the UZH Space Hub, and his research group leader Cora Thiel are conducting includes one with Covid-19 as its focus. “In severe and sometimes fatal cases of Covid-19, it seems that the immune system has induced a massive and dangerous inflammatory reaction, which does not occur in mild cases,” explains Thiel.

It is known from space medicine that immune system activation is attenuated in zero-gravity conditions. From their previous research, Ullrich and Thiel know about possible molecular ways that this “dampened down” but still reactive immune status can be activated. During the parabolic flight, they will try to replicate this immune status seen in weightlessness in human cell cultures through various medications that are already approved for use. Deep molecular analysis will test whether the effects achieved with medication or in weightlessness are identical.

If the results they obtain are positive, it will be possible to begin conducting initial clinical trials with the aim of reducing the rate of severe and fatal cases of Covid-19. “That would enable ‘herd immunity’ to be reached with fewer risks,” says Ullrich of the new approach.

30 experiments to date in zero gravity

The current campaign brings the total number of zero-gravity experiments on the research flights organized by Ullrich to 30. “Research in weightlessness can explain processes and make things visible that on earth are hidden by gravity, as well as helping to investigate new materials and production processes,” says Ullrich, whose background is in medicine and biochemistry. “In the field of medicine, it has brought new insights, new treatment methods and new perspectives for tissue regeneration and replacement.”

Swiss parabolic flights have high added value

It’s thanks to Ullrich’s parabolic flights that scientists from Switzerland have been able to acquire research funding at a European level or conduct their research projects on the International Space Station. “This means the Swiss parabolic flights have high added value and boost the competitiveness of research and technology from Switzerland,” says Ullrich. With the Swiss Parabolic Flight Program, science and innovation sectors in Switzerland gain easy access to a zero-gravity research environment. The program has been made possible through the Swiss Air Force permitting use of the military airfield at Dübendorf for the take-off and landing of the Airbus 310 Zero-G. The zero-gravity research flights are run by Novespace, a subsidiary of the French space agency CNES, which is the owner and operator of the A310 ZERO-G.

Unique situation in Europe

Peter Bodmer, member of the Board of the University and president of the Innovation Park Zurich, is firmly convinced of the potential in Dübendorf: “The Innovation Park Zurich offers a unique opportunity: access to an airfield that enables research and test flights, making the park on the Dübendorf airfield site suitable for all innovative projects in aviation and space flight.” This opinion is shared by Michael Schaepman, Vice President Research at UZH: “With an airfield on our doorstep we have a unique situation within Europe, and as today’s parabolic flight shows, UZH and the Space Hub are reliable partners in aerospace research and development even in challenging times.”

Why use parabolic flights for research?

Parabolic flights are a necessary part of all research in weightlessness. In a parabolic maneuver, an airplane is brought into free fall in the gravitational field, which physically causes true weightlessness on board - identical with the weightlessness on the International Space Station (ISS).

After an extreme climb, a controlled nosedive is executed which follows a parabolic trajectory - this creates weightlessness in the Airbus A310 ZERO-G for 22 seconds. Thanks to the Swiss Air Force, the University of Zurich and the UZH Space Hub have been able to use the military airfield for research purposes for several years now. Previously, in 2015, 2016 and 2018, UZH and the associated not-for-profit Swiss SkyLab Foundation organized three parabolic flight campaigns with the Airbus A310 ZERO-G. The parabolic maneuvers are executed above the Mediterranean or the Atlantic ocean.

This parabolic flight campaign is supported by Swiss Space Office, State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation SERI.

UZH Space Hub

The innovation cluster for space and aviation of the University of Zurich (UZH Space Hub) combines internationally networked research in space and aviation at UZH with new partnerships from science and industry at the Innovation Park Zurich, Dübendorf site. The close links between research and the airfield is unique in Europe and an advantage for Switzerland on the international scene.