astronaut in low gravity space

Low-gravity simulator design could enable advanced astronaut training on Earth

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A new design for a low-gravity simulator has been developed that could help astronauts train more easily for future space research and habitation.

Developed by researchers at Florida State University, the new design for a magnetic levitation-based low-gravity simulator can create an area of low gravity with a volume about 1,000 times larger than existing simulators of the same type.

“Low gravity has a profound effect on the behaviours of biological systems and also affects many physical processes from the dynamics and heat transfer of fluids to the growth and self-organisation of materials,” said Wei Guo, associate professor and lead scientist on the study.

“However, spaceflight experiments are often limited by the high cost and the small payload size and mass. Therefore, developing ground-based low-gravity simulators is important.”

Existing simulators, such as drop towers and parabolic aircraft, use free fall to generate near-zero gravity. But these facilities typically have short low-gravity durations of up to a few minutes at most which makes them unsuitable for experiments that require long observation times.

On the other hand, magnetic levitation-based simulators (MLS) can offer unique advantages, including low cost, easy accessibility, adjustable gravity, and practically unlimited operation time, the researchers said.

But a conventional MLS can only create a small volume of low gravity. When a typical simulator mimics an environment that is about 1 per cent of Earth’s gravity, the functional volume is only a few micro-litres, too small for practical space research and applications.

In order to increase the functional volume of an MLS, the researchers needed a magnet that would allow a uniform levitation force to be generated that would balance the gravitational force in a large volume.

They found they could achieve this by integrating a superconducting magnet with a gradient Maxwell coil — a coil configuration that was first proposed in the 1800s by physicist James Clerk Maxwell.

“Our analysis shows that an unprecedented functional volume of over 4,000 micro-litres can be achieved in a compact coil with a diameter of only eight centimetres,” said doctoral student Hamid Sanavandi, a co-author of the paper.

“When the current in the MLS is reduced to emulate the gravity on Mars, the functional volume can exceed 20,000 micro-litres, or about 20 cubic centimetres.”

Earlier this year, another team developed a refrigerator for astronauts designed to work in low gravity that could enable residents of the International Space Station to enjoy a better diet.

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