VIDEO: Calgary student experiences zero-gravity on the ‘Vomit Comet’

Alina Kunitskaya is working on turning poop into plastic with engineered bacteria

Alina Kunitskaya and Sam Wilton-Clark got the rare opportunity to experience near-weightlessness on the Vomit Comet while doing space-related research. This pictures was taken while they were experiencing zero-gravity. (Courtesy The University of Calgary)

Alina Kunitskaya has been dreaming of becoming an astronaut for most of her life, and on Wednesday she took a giant zero-gravity leap towards that goal with a trip on the world-famous Vomit Comet.

“It’s definitely a dream come true,” said Kunitskaya, a chemical engineering student at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering.

“A couple of years ago, I couldn’t have imagined I’d actually get the opportunity to go on the Vomit Comet.”

The plane is a commercial airliner that has been adapted to fly scientists and their experiments on large arcing parabolas through the sky. As the plane reaches the top of its arc, the passengers experience 20 to 30 seconds of weightlessness, or microgravity.

“We did eight parabolas,” said Kunitskaya. “So eight times in zero gravity for about 20 seconds each.”

She said six of those were for doing experiments, but the first and last were just for fun, and so they could get a feel for what it would be like.

Kunitskaya said she knew going into the flight that she would likely experience motion sickness, but she didn’t let that stop her.

“I started feeling it right after the first parabola and I just had the bag near me the whole time,” she said.

“You just accept the fact you might get sick, and you work through that.”

She said it wasn’t the floating that bothered her stomach, nor was it the 2-Gs (double the earth’s normal gravity) she experienced entering and exiting the parabolas. It was once the plane got back to level flight that she felt sick.

“I did puke a little bit,” laughed Kunitskaya, “but I still did my job.”

She said the moment they began experiencing microgravity, it felt to her as if the plane had suddenly flipped upside down.

“I think it’s because the fluids in the body shift to your head, and maybe that’s what makes it feel like you’re upside down. Sometimes you lose control of your hands because they just kind of float on their own.”

While she floated slightly out of her chair, she was still tethered to the chair, meaning somersaults and Superman-style flying was not an option.

Kunitskaya said she and others on the plane used the time to take some quick selfies and to just enjoy the experience.

Of course there was work to be done during the flight. Kunitskaya and her teammates are working on a way to turn an astronaut’s fecal matter into plastic with an engineered bacteria.

The idea is to use the raw plastic in 3D printers on long-duration space journeys.

Luckily, Kunitskaya didn’t have to bring any actual poop on the flight. The experiment involved testing one step in the process: extracting the bits of plastic from a liquid.

“Because the particles are so small, you can’t just remove them from liquid using conventional ways,” she said.

On earth, they’ve been using microscopic air bubbles to separate the plastic from a liquid. They wanted to see if that process could work in zero-gravity, even though bubbles don’t float “up” in space.

Kunitskaya said their experiment was successful, and the trip was one she won’t soon forget.

“It’s been an absolutely incredible experience and an incredible opportunity,” she said.

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