In a world-first, Chinese scientists claim to have successfully constructed an artificial moon.
Capable of creating zero-gravity and limited-gravity environments at the switch of a button, the lunar stand-in will be used to prepare astronauts for moon-based operations and to learn more about how matter interacts in low-gravity.
Recreating the moon’s gravity on Earth has always been a daunting prospect for scientists. Methods employed today include using drop towers, likened to theme park rides where participants rise several storeys into the air before descending into freefall, creating a feeling of weightlessness.
Climbing and free-falling via aircraft at altitude was recently showcased when the Virgin Galactic spacecraft thrilled passengers by giving them a brief taste of what low-gravity feels like. Both methods, however, only recreate the desired conditions for minutes at a time.
Located in Xuzhou in Jiangsu province, the facility is equipped with a vacuum chamber room with a miniature 6-foot wide “moon” at its centre. The room, carefully designed to simulate the moon’s landscape, is complete with ultra-fine dust, loose soil and rock.
The airless chamber experiences gravity one-sixth as powerful as Earth’s. This is achieved by way of powerful electromagnets that suspend the room above the floor. Engineers from China’s University of Mining and Technology found inspiration from an unlikely source – a levitating frog.
In 2000, Sir Andrei Konstantinovich Geim, a physics professor at the National Graphene Institute in the UK, successfully demonstrated diamagnetic levitation by making a frog float in mid-air. Konstantinovich Geim would later win the Nobel Prize for his contribution to science.
The one-of-a-kind lunar simulator will take the industry to the next level, said project leader, Li Ruilin. Unlike previous methods, their mini-moon could make gravity “disappear” for as “long as you want”.
Li and his team have outlined several tests they intend to conduct. Some tests, for example impact tests, could be conducted quickly, while others, like studying how lunar soil deforms over time, may take months to complete.
Experiments conducted in a moon-like environment could provide more insight for researchers looking for water trapped beneath the lunar surface. Atmospheric conditions, such as the moon’s heat retention capabilities, will also be studied, perhaps establishing whether a permanent colony on our only cosmic satellite is feasible.