Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Flight Video

Check out a video of our most recent flight on the NASA Weightless Wonder VI.  In the video you can see how we work to complete research in even the most interesting environments.  

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Parabolic Flight Campaign 2015 - Mission and Current Status

In a previous post, we discussed what parabolic flights are and why they are used.  But why are we using them this time?  We are flying our custom imaging systems (FLEX) to observe how various genes behave in zero gravity in three distinct ways.  These methods are either contained within FLEX imager itself or are external experiments designed to complement and verify the data collected within the imager.
We have two FLEX imager units, named Rocky and Bullwinkle.  One unit will be operational on the ground, and the other will fly on the C-9 parabolic aircraft.  This experimental design allows parallel data collection so we know that when we compare flight to ground, our differences are solely in what is happening during flight.
Part one of our experiment is green fluorescent protein (GFP) imaging.  This system will take pictures of GFP in our plants by using blue LEDs to excite the GFP and filters to see where the GFP is located.  We have already tagged GFP to genes of interest, and using this system will allow us to watch where these genes are active how they behave over the course of the parabolic flight.
Part one is supported by a floor harvest.  During the course of a parabolic flight, we can do 10 parabolas before we run out of airspace and need to turn around.  During these turns, we are able to open our Arabidopsis plates, take all the plants off of the plates, and put them into a solution that "freezes" (chemically preserves) the plants.  We can to this at each of the turns (after 10, 20, 30, and 40 parabolas).  For this campaign, we are harvesting the same plant "breeds" (lines) we are imaging in part one to verify that the change in GFP we may see through the camera is correct.
Part two of our experiment uses a FLIR thermal imaging camera.  We are comparing two different lines of Arabidopsis where one of the lines cools itself better than the other.  We want to see how the leaf temperature of these lines differ in zero gravity, since air can move differently in zero g.
Part three is an experiment designed to see what happens to plants at the beginning of one of these flights.  Using a Kennedy Space Center Fixation Tube (KFT), we are going to preserve plants at various early points in the flight to separate the plant responses to hyper gravity and zero gravity.
Currently, we are in Building 993 at Ellington Air Field, awaiting the final go-ahead that we are ready to fly.  Rocky and Bullwinkle are ready to go, and so are all of our plants.  More updates soon! - Eric Schultz

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Parabolic Flights – More than just the “Vomit Comet”

We have posted online the past several weeks that we are currently gearing up for a new parabolic flight campaign in Houston, TX.  But what is involved in a parabolic flight campaign?  What is a parabolic flight?  And why do we even do them?  Hopefully, this brief overview will answer these questions, or at least provide an initial framework for where to go next.

A parabolic flight campaign is the entire mission associated with the parabolic flights.  For this campaign, that involved a pre-Test Readiness Review (TRR) on Friday, June 5th, followed by the actual TRR the following Monday (as well as loading the plane and installing hardware), four consecutive flight days (Tuesday-Friday), unloading the aircraft on Friday, with a backup day on Saturday.  Since we study plants, that means all of our planting must be done beforehand, and must be done so that each day, we can have the same age of plants.  For this campaign, that means planting dormant plates and activating them in a staggered pattern, so that we can have (for example) 8 day old plants on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.  Since we will be in Texas, and not close to UF, we also have to arrange travel, lodging, meals, and set up a portable workstation and laboratory to do the work we need to do while we are there.  A lot of planning goes into one of these campaigns, usually starting about three months before we depart.  But it is this planning that makes these campaigns possible—and the more planning, the more successful it is too.

Image credit: "Zero gravity flight trajectory C9-565" by NASA - C-9B Flight Trajectory, NASA Reduced Gravity Research Program. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

A parabolic flight uses commercial aircraft to achieve true zero gravity by adjusting its angle of flight.  The diagram (above) shows one parabola and how the plane is able to achieve this altered gravity state.  In our case, we will fly forty parabolas in one flight, for a campaign total of 160 parabolas.  We depart and arrive at Ellington Airport (formerly Ellington Field) in Houston, TX.  What about the nickname, “Vomit Comet?”  Though it is not the official name of the aircraft (that would be “Weightless Wonder”), it does accurately reflect the relatively high rate of motion sickness induced by this kind of a flight pattern.  Anti-motion sickness medication is usually administered to all flyers prior to each flight, and from experience, they really do work.  The flight is very smooth also.  Save for an abrupt end to each of the zero gravity portions, the rest of the flight is more akin to a boat’s motion than a roller coaster.  Weightlessness is truly a unique feeling.

We use parabolic flight to see rapid responses to zero gravity, hyper gravity, and changes in gravity in general.  NASA has used parabolic flight in the past to train astronauts, and many other institutions and organizations have used them for testing their systems and techniques in zero gravity, prior to true spaceflight.  Being a plant space biology laboratory, we are particularly interested in plant response to gravity.  Plants have not evolved to respond specifically to zero gravity, and thus in order to adapt to this new environment; they must engage previously-existing pathways.  What parabolic flight allows us is to look at what happens first—the plant’s initial response to a change in gravity, whether that is from normal 1g to 2g (beginning of the parabola), 2g to 0g (middle), or 0g to 2g (end).  Spaceflight allows us to look at adaptation to a prolonged zero gravity environment, which is extremely valuable.  Combined with parabolic flight, we can generate a more complete picture of how plants respond to changes in gravity. 

Here is Dr. Paul explaining a little more about what it is like to ride on the "Vomit Comet".

Monday, April 6, 2015

What do interceptor-class jets and plants have in common? A lot more than you might think…

In April of 2013, our lab performed an experiment with Starfighters Aerospace, located in Kennedy Space Center.  This company uses Lockheed F-104s to create the same extreme g-forces felt during suborbital missions.  These craft are able to fly at Mach 2.2 and are able to climb to altitudes over 90,000 feet.  For more information, visit

But what do Starfighters have to do with plants?  Our experiment looked at plant transcriptome response to suborbital flight profiles.  The basic question we asked was, “What would plants feel during a suborbital flight?”  We were also asking if an untrained civilian (represented here by our two PIs, Dr. Rob Ferl and Dr. Anna-Lisa Paul) could be tasked to perform certain functions during the flight, such as taking various measurements and harvesting plants in a special chemical fixation unit designed at Kennedy Space Center called a KFT.  We also flew more plants in the two separate cargo holds, one of which was pressurized.  We are currently analyzing the data from microarrays, which tell us the transcriptional profile of the plants from KFTs, and will soon be analyzing the differences in atmospheric pressures, in addition to the g-forces felt on this kind of flight.

The flight itself consisted of a high-speed takeoff, three lateral turns, a high-speed, low-altitude run, followed by a 90-degree vertical climb.  The F-104 then turned upside-down, resulting in about 10 seconds of zero gravity, then began the high-g descent.  This profile is similar to the forces that will be felt on suborbital craft, the only difference being the amount of time in zero gravity.  The entire process was repeated two to three times for each flight.  The video below is a montage of the two flights from that day that represents the flight profile and some of the activities performed onboard.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Imaging phase is over - awaiting sample return

It is with a small sense of relief, and a large sense of gratitude, that we now close down the LMM image gathering segment of the APEX-03 experiment. The crew at GRC have been fantastic and we deeply appreciate their efforts. Now we return our focus to the flight operations that center with our colleagues at KSC. Having successfully managed the flight operations and the ground control operations, the team at KSC is back in our forefront, monitoring the packing and stowing of the APEX samples for return on Dragon.

We will all be watching for a safe departure of Dragon from the ISS and a successful splash down.