What Does it Take to Simulate Gravity in Space?

We've all seen the videos on the news, the internet, and even social media of astronauts floating around inside their space ships. 

Space shuttle astronauts floating between flight decks, International Space Station astronauts doing endless flips in the middle of the lab or floating around corners and journeying from lab to lab. 

This made me think—movies and television shows never have scenes like that. Those astronauts always seem to be walking just fine. Why couldn't those scenes take place in space? Why don’t we have artificial gravity on say, the International Space Station? 

The answer: artificial gravity would require a spinning spacecraft utilizing centrifugal force which would push everything in the ship, including people, outwards away from the center of rotation. It would create a sense of gravity. But it wouldn’t be easy. 

Think of those carnival and state fair rides where you stand up against the wall in a circular room and then the room begins to spin. The room spins faster and faster until suddenly the floor drops away, but you stay stuck to the wall. That’s the effect of centrifugal force. 

Now imagine that in space. 

The smaller the spacecraft is, the faster it would have to rotate to generate that artificial gravity. A spaceship that size would be difficult to build and fly. 

The solution would be to build a bigger spacecraft with a large spinning disc. The larger the disc, the slower it would have to rotate to generate the force that would simulate gravity. 

But right now, there is no spacecraft in the planning stage that is big enough to accomplish this. And we’re talking really large, as big as some of the largest football stadiums. The International Space Station is about the size of a large house. 

Maybe one day. For now, I’ll just go on that spinning ride at the State Fair. 

—Frank Graff


Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog! 

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