Can we create artificial gravity in space?

07 February 2017

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Tim Peake returns from space

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Question

Paul - With all the talk of the problems associated with the dangers to health of long-term microgravity, why is no-one talking about using centrifugal force to solve it, a la 2001: a space odyssey?

Answer

Chris Smith put this question to Space Boffin Richard Hollingham...

Richard - We know that space is bad for you. Being in space, being in microgravity causes loss of muscle, loss of bone really quickly. You only have to be there a matter of hours before these things start happening.

Chris - Really?

Richard - Yeah. Very, very quickly. Problems with the nervous system, problems with the immune system and we are adapted to gravity, that’s how we evolved. We live around gravity.

Chris - Those nervous system problems and immune problems, are they down to a lack of exposure to gravity?

Richard - They are still being investigated but it would seem certain. There are other things going on in the space environment when you haven't got gravity. You’ve got, for example, with the immune system because you’ve not got gravity, bugs, bacteria, viruses won’t sink so they are around you all the time - there could be things like that. We haven’t got that many astronauts to study at any one time so you’ve not got a great group of people to look at and to study.

Chris - They’ve gone on to live a fairly long time those these astronauts.

Richard - Yeah. They’re doing pretty well. We’ve just had a year long mission but the problem is going to be not so much a year is fine. But a trip to Mars is going to be at least nine months out. Then you are actually on Mars and then you’ve got to come back nine months. You know the ‘giant leap for mankind,’ you don’t want to be coming down the bottom of a ladder and fall off and break you leg or something, which could happen if you’re not adapted, so, at the moment, in space they have various resistance machines. Treadmills for Tim Peake when he was in space he ran the London marathon on the treadmill. So there are adaptations but artificial gravity, that’s the thing we would love. And you look at those fantastic images 2001 Space Odyssey where you’ve got this big rotating spacecraft. The amazing images from the 60s and 70s of these massive space stations that rotate. Because they’re really big, they’re very difficult to make but people are looking at those sorts of options.

Chris - Would it work?

Richard - It would work, absolutely. You could get it to rotate - it’s not artificial gravity it’s centrifugal force. In 2001 that’s a great example. Can everyone remember the 2001 Space Odyssey? Even if you didn’t look through the whole film, it’s a brilliant opening where he’s doing this running. He’s basically running round the inside of the spacecraft. The Martian - the Matt Damon film recently. Again it had artificial gravity with this spacecraft spinning.

Chris - What does it feel like Richard? Do you feel like you’re actually experiencing gravity or do you just feel like you’re on that fairground ride that sort of does the same thing?

Richard - The trouble is no-one knows because we haven’t done it yet. It should feel like real gravity and they are doing some experiments on a much smaller scale. For example, the German space agency actually has a mini centrifuge that they’re looking at putting in the space station.

Chris - Can you put your wife on that?

Richard - No. I put her on a much bigger centrifuge actually. She was really good at it - I was rubbish. I was absolutely rubbish - I really squealed. So it is something that the space industry is seriously looking at. They’ve got to do something so a large spinning spacecraft would be the answer. The problem is launching a large spinning spacecraft. I mean, it’s taking since 1998 to build the International Space Station and you need something a lot bigger. So it’s a huge undertaking.

Chris - So right now you just have to keep up the exercise in space and hope for the best?

Richard - Yeah.

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