London, Nov 12 : The European Space Agency (ESA) is planning to offer zero-gravity rides to passengers on an airplane, giving a boost to the fledging space-tourism market.
According to a report in New Scientist, the airplane would fly in a cycle of steep 45 degree climbs and shallower 30 degree dives, providing snatches of weightlessness as it goes over the top and starts each descent.
This parabolic technique has been used for decades to train astronauts, test equipment for space programmes and for scientific research, with planes taking part in NASA's programme being dubbed "vomit comets".
The ESA uses a converted Airbus A300 operated by the French space agency CNES for microgravity training and testing. It follows a flight path rather like an 8000-foot-high roller coaster over the Atlantic.
Plans to open up the experience to paying guests were recently revealed by the ESA on a special flight for European officials and media.
"Today there are no regulations that authorise this, but a few times a year we could have exceptional authorisation where we mix science and demonstrations for observers," said French astronaut Jean-Francois Clervoy, who heads the CNES unit that operates the flights.
Clervoy said that he hopes to start public flights within a year, with a price tag of 3000 Euros for 30 parabolas, each providing 22 seconds of weightlessness, a total of 11 minutes.
Sales would sponsor research onboard the aircraft, not generate profits, according to Clervoy.
A commercial company based in Florida, Zero Gravity Corp, already offers vomit-comet flights with 15 parabolas for 4950 dollars, and last year took physicist Stephen Hawking on a weightless experience.
According to Clervoy, though trips like these cost a fraction of the 30 million dollars to 35 million dollars, paid by wealthy "space tourists" for the ultimate ride into orbit, the weightless experience is exactly the same.