Concordia researchers use zero-gravity flight to study conditions on Mars

A Concordia professor oversaw an airborne experiment in hopes of better understanding how space rovers will adapt to Martian soil.

Team of researchers worked to recreate the Red Planet's gravitational pull

The team aboard the Falcon 20 studied wheel traction in conditions similar to those found on Mars. (Submitted by National Research Council)

Krzysztof Skonieczny can laugh now, while reliving last month's rollercoaster-like ride aboard a Falcon 20 jet, even if it wasn't always pretty.

"They call these types of aircraft 'vomit comets' and for good reason," said Skonieczny, an associate professor at Concordia University's Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science. 

"You get that rising feeling in your stomach."

But packing a few barf bags was a small price to pay when attempting to recreate Martian gravity here on Earth.

Skonieczny and a few of his students were aboard the Falcon 20 aircraft when it performed a series of adrenaline-rushing parabolic arcs, three kilometres in height, above the national capital region.

It may have looked like a Top Gun audition, but the tricky moves were designed to imitate a Martian atmosphere aboard the plane while a rover wheel prototype was observed.

The machine was placed in sandbox filled with simulated Martian soil during the experiment.

Skonieczny's team monitored how well the wheel moved on the simulated soil in the zero gravity conditions, in hopes of getting a better idea how the ExoMars rover will manoeuvre on the Red Planet — whose gravitational pull is one-third of the Earth's — during its mission in 2020.

During the mid-air experiment, the windows of opportunity to collect data was narrow.

"We would only have 20 to 30 seconds of reduced gravity in any individual go," said Skonieczny. 

Experiment inspired by failed NASA mission

The European Space Agency and Russia's state space corporation, Roscosmos, will oversee the ExoMars mission.

Scientists will look to avoid the troubles encountered by NASA's Spirit rover, which got stuck on Martian sand, effectively ending that rover's mission.

It's with that failure in mind that Skonieczny partnered with the National Research Council for this experiment.

The team installed a small camera overlooking the sandbox.

An automated system dictated the speed of the rover wheel prototype's movements on the simulated Martian soil. 

"We're looking at the traction forces that the wheel was generating as we were driving it in these reduced gravity conditions," Skonieczny said. "We also looked at the sinkage — how far it was sinking down into the soil."

His team hopes to finish analyzing the data collected by its camera this summer, with a report on their findings expected next spring.