Scientists in China claim to have built a 12-story facility that can replicate the weightlessness experienced in outer space.
China has prioritised space exploration in its latest five-year plan and the newly constructed Microgravity Experiment Facility with Electromagnetic Launch (MEFEL) will allow researchers to rack-up much needed time in low-gravity conditions, at a fraction of the cost of manned space missions.
MEFEL uses a powerful linear motor to propel objects up and down the length of the 40-metre structure, simulating the feeling astronauts undergo when in orbit, for four-second periods.
MEFEL will be a “game changer” for pre-testing experiments and new materials before they reach the Tiangong space station, according to project insider and associate professor with the Academy of Science’s Technology and Engineering Centre for Space Utilisation, Zhang Yongkang.
MEFEL was significantly more cost-effective than conventional microgravity facilities, such as drop towers and parabolic flights, which for decades have been the only way the world’s space agencies could consistently and accurately achieve zero-gravity without leaving orbit, said Beijing-based Zhang, speaking to the state-run media outlet, Science and Technology Daily.
While drop towers do create space-like conditions, testing is limited to a handful of attempts per day, and many of the system’s components need to be incredibly robust to avoid catastrophic failure during the violent deceleration process, Zhang added.
MEFEL can host a maximum of 100 experiment sessions per day, using roughly only one kilowatt-hour for every experiment, reported the South China Morning Post.
Its engineers are also developing methods to accurately simulate the gravity curves of celestial bodies like Mars, as well as the moon.
The three-metre-long motor converts electricity into linear propulsion, much like the catapults that help launch jet aircraft off carrier decks, explained Zhang. Unlike traditional drop towers that achieve microgravity mostly through freefall, MEFEL vertically accelerates objects upwards before allowing them to drop, effectively doubling the duration of microgravity experienced per experiment.
The team said once in motion, objects inside MEFEL experience roughly 0.001 per cent of the Earth’s gravitational pull for just over four seconds.
Next, Zhang and his fellow researchers will attempt to build a second, scaled-up MEFEL facility with the capacity to conduct 20-second tests with objects weighing up to half a ton.