Don your moon boots

Christopher Little cannot weight to explain how this artificial device works

13th February 2017

Researchers have created an ‘artificial gravity’ device that could be used to keep astronauts healthy on long-distance space journeys. But forget the things from science fiction it uses the same technology as vacuum cleaners. However, it will still help overcome some of the problems faced by weightlessness and could be vital towards any future missions to Mars.

Escaping the clutches of gravity to reach the vacuum of space is an arduous task, requiring tremendous energy and engineering skill. But after all that effort to leave it behind, our bodies yearn for its invisible and relentless embrace.

In science fiction films, there is usually just some high-tech device that explains Gravity’s presence while in space. Star Trek’s the Starship Enterprise has gravity plates that line its floors, allowing the crew to waltz around the ship’s corridors in their multicoloured glad rags. On Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon, an artificial gravity generator lets Chewy recline on his furry behind as he destroys his opponents in holo-chess.

“In science fiction films, there is usually just some high-tech device that explains Gravity’s presence while in space. Back here in reality, no such device currently exists”

Back here in reality, no such device exists. So what we have instead, is a cross between a giant vacuum cleaner, a treadmill and a menagerie of S&M ropes. It may not be as elegant or high-tech as the world of tomorrow promised, but it could solve one of the fundamental issues encountered in space travel.

Artificial gravity is not simply wanted so astronauts can move about like they do on Earth, but to solve the health problems that develop in zero or microgravity environments.

Weightlessness creates a myriad of problems for astronauts, from hypersensitivity in their bums and feet, to fluid pooling in the upper body. This is because everything from the pressure of our blood, to the tension of our eyeballs have perfectly evolved to the conditions of Earth. Once in zero or microgravity, it doesn’t take long for the cardiovascular system to get confused and for the growth and maintenance of muscles and skeletons to be compromised.

Tim Peak has said that upon returning to Earth after 6 months on the International Space Station it felt like he had the worst hangover in the World. He’s had dizziness, nausea, faintness and a sense of vertigo when moving his head. We all know how hard it is to get out of bed when you feel like that, but imagine having to land on an alien planet in that fragile condition?

For that’s what those brave enough to travel to Mars would feel like after a journey that is thought would take at least 7 months to complete. They would also not have the luxury of hospitals and medical teams waiting to help them with their rehabilitation when they land either.

“Tim Peak said that upon returning to Earth it felt like he had the worst hangover in the World”

It has long been thought that a centrifuge system would be the best prospect for artificial gravity. Operating a bit like how water stays in a bucket when you swing it around on a rope, a rotating spacecraft would exploit centrifugal force to create the feeling of gravity. NASA completed an experiment like this in space over fifty years ago, but for it to work effectively it would require a huge spacecraft.

The device that has been created by researchers will help tackle these issues by allowing a person to exercise at their own body weight, rather than weightlessly.

Referred to as a lower body negative pressure device, it forms a seal around the waist and contains the lower half of the body in a specially designed chamber. A powerful suction system creates the impression of weight as the astronaut runs on a treadmill, with a series of ropes and harnesses keeping them in place.

This vacuum cleaner-like device may not be as stylish. But as the old joke goes, gravity sucks and this contraption has that down to a tee.

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