Brushing up: Microgravity

May 1, 2001
Gravity, the attractive force between two masses, keeps us oriented in more ways than one. Without gravitational influences

Gravity, the attractive force between two masses, keeps us oriented in more ways than one. Without gravitational influences, we’d barely be able to recognize our world, let alone function in it.

Sometimes gravity gets in the way, however, blinding us to how things actually work. Even our mechanical aptitude possesses a certain near-sightedness; we understand things based on the way they behave in the Earth’s gravitational field, and that, only at the surface.

To peel away the cloak of gravity and isolate some of the more fundamental properties, forces, and processes of nature, scientists create a condition called “microgravity.”

Microgravity is relative rather than absolute. It’s created by free-fall; the entire experiment accelerates at 1g, nullifying the effect of Earth’s gravity. Otherwise, you’d have to travel almost 17 times farther than the Moon, or 6.37 million km, to reach a point in space where gravity is one-millionth of that on Earth’s surface.

By conducting experiments in microgravity, researchers hope to uncover new information previously masked by the effects of Earth’s gravitational field. Primary areas of investigation range from fundamental and fluid physics to biotechnology, combustion science, and materials science. NASA even hopes to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity and Newton’s law of gravity.

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