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Faking gravity in space with a spinning table

Researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder are experimenting with the use of a rotating table to give space-farers short doses of artificial gravity in order to mitigate the negative consequences of weightlessness.

In a series of recent studies, the pair and their colleagues set out to investigate whether queasiness is really the price of admission for artificial gravity. In other words, could astronauts train their bodies to tolerate the strain that comes from being spun around in circles like hamsters in a wheel?

The team began by recruiting a group of volunteers and tested them on the centrifuge across 10 sessions.

But unlike most earlier studies, the CU Boulder researchers took things slow. They first spun their subjects at just one rotation per minute, and only increased the speed once each recruit was no longer experiencing the cross-coupled illusion. “I present at a conference and everyone says, ‘she’s the one who spins people and makes them sick,'” Bretl said. “But we try to avoid instances of motion sickness because the whole point of our research is to make it tolerable.”

The personalized approach worked. By the end of 10th session, the study subjects were all spinning comfortably, without feeling any illusion, at an average speed of about 17 rotations per minute. That’s much faster than any previous research had been able to achieve.

The idea is that you could install this rotating table on a interplanetary ship, and have its occupants periodically spend time on it to get their daily dose of gravity. This way you would not have to build a giant spinning spaceship.

The research has potential. The one question that remains unanswered and is probably central to this concept is how little gravity is needed to avoid the problems of weightlessness. Right now, we do not know. It could be for example that 30 minutes at 1/10 g could do the job. Or maybe 1 g for 2 hours. If the former the engineering challenges become minor. If the latter the problems are more difficult.

I am aware of only one centrifuge experiment ever done in weightlessness, on a Russian space station. They rotated a plant at a very tiny percentage of g’s and found it might help plants prosper in space. The data point however is too small, with no followup. This is the kind of research that should be going on on ISS, and is not.

Hat tip Marcus A.

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