There are plenty of processes that might be easier in lower gravity. So far, the biggest hindrance to developing those processes has been the expense of launching equipment to the low gravity environments of the ISS or other space-based research stations. Testing on the ground would be preferable both for ease of use and much lower cost, but the Earth’s gravity usually puts a stop to that. Some scientists see another way. Using magnetic fields can artificially simulate a zero-gravity environment, and now a team from Florida State University’s (FSU’s) National High Magnetic Field Laboratory has developed a system that can hold a much larger sample than previous iterations.
The system, a type of magnetic levitation-based simulator (MLS), can hold about 1,000 times what previous similar systems did. That’s a significant improvement, as the size was the limiting factor in the earlier designs, as they could only hold a few microliters of material.
That’s too little for many applications, like synthetically grown organs or hydroponics equipment. So an increase to 4,000 microliters is a significant improvement, though still far below what many scientists would want. Lower gravities result in larger experimental areas, so when simulating Martian gravity, the system can create about 20 cubic centimeters of experiment space.
That’s still not great for many experiments. Still, it’s a step in the right direction and far preferable to the alternatives of expensive rocket flights to low orbit or a parabolic airplane flight where the effects are only active for a few seconds. What’s more, the FSU team leveraged existing high-temperature superconducting materials and integrated them with a particular type of coil configuration.
Known as a “gradient Maxwell coil” and named after James Clerk Maxwell, a prominent 19th-century physicist, the combination of superconductor and coil can solve many of the technical challenges facing previous MLS systems. These systems, usually based on solenoids, are also finicky and challenging to maintain over long periods.
While this technology could be game-changing for the medical and biological research fields, it first must find its way out of the lab. If it doesn’t run into any problems while doing so, this breakthrough in microgravity environmental simulation might enable even more technologies that will open up opportunities for further space-based research and maybe even production.
FSU – Low-gravity simulator design offers new avenues for space research and mission training
npj Microgravity – A magnetic levitation based low-gravity simulator with an unprecedented large functional volume
UT – Real Artificial Gravity for SpaceX’s Starship
NASA – Microgravity
3D drawing of the magnetic system (left) and a visualized map of its effective field (right)
Credit – Wei Guo/ FSU-FAMU College of Engineering