Tutorial on Microgravity Research
Executive Overview of Microgravity
Microgravity research holds the promise to develop and eventually manufacture new materials which can not be made on Earth due to gravity. These new materials shall have properties that are superior to those made on Earth and hence be far more valuable. These new materials may be used to:
- speed up future computers,
- reduce pollution,
- improve fiber optics,
- increase the efficiency of oil refineries,
- give automobiles better fuel efficiency, more power, and less emissions,
- make feasable room temperature superconductors,
- enable medical breakthroughs to cure diseases (e.g., diabetes).
One particular material under research now is a fiber optic material that can transmit 100 times more data than the equivalent material produced on Earth. Comparison photographs showing this material and other materials produced on Earth (1g) versus microgravity (mg) are shown on the following pages.
What is microgravity? Microgravity, also called weightlessness or zero gravity, is the absence of gravity. It is bested illustrated by astronauts floating in their spacecraft. They are floating because they are in a microgravity environment. Besides astronauts, many people experience microgravity every day by riding roller coasters or jumping off diving boards. It is the "free fall" period of these activities when the microgravity occurs and of course only lasts for a short period of time.
For research, microgravity is obtained by four methods.
1. Drop tower. The payload is simply dropped off the top of the tower and allowed to fall. This can provide 2 seconds of microgravity at a cost of pennies per pound.
2. Airplane flying parabolas. The semi-famous example is the NASA Vomit Comet which is also used to train astronauts to work in a microgravity environment. This method can provide 25 seconds of microgravity at a cost in the range of a few dollars per pound.
3. Sounding rocket. The rocket goes up and comes down in the same general vecinity, never getting into orbit. Todays sounding rockets can provide between 3 to 9 minutes of microgravity at a cost of approximately $1,000,000 per launch and payloads weighing around 1000 pounds (which equates to $1000 per pound).
4. Space Shuttle or International Space Station. Days of microgravity can be achieved. The cost for putting a payload in orbit with the Space Shuttle is $10,000 per pound. Once available, the estimated cost for having comercial payloads on the International Space Station is $15,000 per pound (not counting the $10,000 per pound to get it there on the Space Shuttle).