Artificial Gravity is Critical to Space Exploration - So Why is it Being Ignored?

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Artificial Gravity Would Solve Many Problems with Space Travel 

You've heard it before ... 

Living in space is bad for you.

​Bone loss. Sleep deprivation. Irregular heartbeat. Slowing of the cardiovascular system. Increased vertigo. Loss of balance.

Even increased farting (just what you want in small, enclosed spaces!).

The list goes on.

In space, astronauts experience all sorts of medical problems. And after more than fifty years of research by countless space physiologists and biologists, there is only one conclusion:

Living in space is bad for you.

The good news, though, is this -- almost all these problems are caused by one thing: the lack of gravity.​

Add some gravity -- even a little bit --  and things get much better.​

​So the question is: if gravity is so beneficial to our bodies, why hasn't more been done to provide it in space? Where is the research? Where are the systems and technologies to counter the effects of zero-g? 

Why is this critical technology being ignored?​

The basic idea of artificial gravity is well understood. It's all about centripetal acceleration -- rotate an object around an axis and everything inside will be 'pushed' to the bottom.

In other words -- pseudo-gravity.

It's been a staple of scientific thought -- and science fiction plots -- for well over 100 years.​ In fact, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the Russian rocket scientist and pioneer of astronautic theory, first wrote about using a spinning wheel to produce artificial gravity back in 1903.

1903!​

Additional proposals -- both fact and fiction -- have been presented since then.

BIS Space Station

BIS Space Station proposed by H A Ross and R A Smith in 1949. Credit: British Interplanetary Society.  Click for larger image.

In 1949, in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society​, H. A. Ross envisaged a 'refueling' station on the way to the moon. The station consisted of three sections which Ross called the 'bowl, the bun and the arm'.

The 'bowl' was a hemispherical solar collector -- a giant solar mirror -- that collected and concentrated sunlight to produce steam ​which in turn was used to power the station.

The 'bun' was located behind the 'bowl' and was the habitation section - a spinning wheel, in essence.

And the 'arm'?  A cylindrical tube that was connected to the bun and would be used as a docking port.

It was a basic design that continued to persist well into the future.​

​NASA even got into the game in the '60's and 70's when it commissioned several studies. They wanted ideas on what future space stations might look like and industry giants like McDonnell-Douglas and North American Rockwell jumped in. So did academia.

Some of the concepts were huge and, in retrospect, unachievable -- more science fiction than science. Designs like the Stanford Torus, Bernal Sphere and O'Neill Cylinders. 

Stanford Torus

The Stanford Torus. The main wheel was nearly 1.8km in diameter (1.1 miles) with an internal tube diameter of 130m (430 ft) and rotated once per minute.

Bernal Sphere exterior view

Bernal Sphere Exterior - The Bernal Sphere was Gerard O'Neill's alternative to the Stanford Torus. The main sphere was 500m in diameter and rotated at 1.9 rpm. The deesign could house 10,000 people, with a series of toroidal rings at either end for agriculture.

Other designs, though, were more practical. Aerospace contractors focused on technologies that were, although bigger than anything yet flown, immediately available. Designs like the 'Space Base' proposed by McDonnell-Douglas.

McDonnell-Douglas 'Space Base'

McDonnell-Douglas 'Space Base'

Or the competing version from North American Rockwell, which housed twin nuclear reactors at one end of the station for power.

North American Rockwell Space Base

North American Rockwell Space Base

Regardless of where they came from, though, these designs all had one common theme...

Artificial gravity

It was considered essential to living and working in space.

And then?

... they were all abandoned.​

David Baker, editor of Spaceflight magazine and a former NASA engineer who worked on the concepts, explained it this way:

These old space station studies now look completely archaic. The Skylab missions [of the mid 1970s] proved that the whole point of having a space station was to do microgravity research, so we abandoned the artificial gravity idea.

In other words, the prevailing thought switched from living in space to doing research in space. The effects of microgravity was what captured the scientific community's interest -- not human expansion beyond the Earth.

Now, though, after more than fifty years of medical research, the idea of artificial gravity is worth revisiting. Commercial space tourism is about to take off -- literally -- and it won't stop with quick suborbital flights. People will want a place to go and to stay.

And that means artificial gravity.​

​There are a few ideas that might make that happen.

Gemini 11 Artificial Gravity

Artificial-gravity experiment. The “station module” (left) comprises a Gemini Transport and a One-Room Space Station, while the “counterbody module” is the spent Titan II second stage that launched the One-Room Station. Image: McDonnell/NASA

One of them, first thought of during the American Gemini program, is to stretch a tether between a capsule and an unmanned docking module and then spinning the whole thing around the center to produce centripetal acceleration. 

The theory is the same as twirling a bucket around on the end of a string. Go fast enough and the water will stay in.

Dr. Robert Zubrin considered doing the same thing as part of his 'Mars Direct' plan. Each hab module would detach from it's fuel tank, unreel a tether, and use the mass of the empty tank to counter-balance the hab module as it spun around in a circle.

​Another idea was even simpler -- and smaller. The premise?

Use a small spinning platform -- a centrifuge -- to reproduce the effects of gravity.​

Researchers at MIT, for example,  conducted a series of experiments using a small centrifuge -- essentially a spinning chair or table -- to study the effects even temporary exposure to small amounts of artificial gravity would have on the body.

The problem, though, was that the short diameters of these designs tended to cause quite a bit of vertigo and motion sickness -- especially when participants moved their heads. Faster spins and shorter diameters just made it worse .

The overall result, though, was positive.  Plans, therefore, were drawn up to test the system on the ISS. The hope was ​that demonstrating the technology in real-life conditions would lead to actual flight-ready hardware.

Unfortunately, it never happened. 

But researchers kept trying out new ideas. One was to make the centrifuge just a bit bigger -- by using inflatables.

Inflatable modules have been considered for a number of years as a way to expand the volume of orbital stations, but this idea was about how to make an inflatable torus that could be used as sleeping module for a spaceship​.

Nautilus-X Extended

Nautilus-X Extended duration explorer. Credit: Mark L Holderman - NASA Technology Applications Assessment Team. Click for larger image.

Called the Nautilus-X, or Multi Mission Space Exploration Vehicle, the design was put forward by a consortium from NASA, academia and industry in 2011. It essentially was a multi-billion dollar spacecraft intended for long duration missions to the moon or Mars.

The interesting thing, though, was the inflatable, rotating habitation module (sleeping module, really), or the 'centrifuge' as it was called.

​The 'centrifuge' was not meant for full time habitation, nor was it designed to provide the equivalent of Earth's gravity. It was a partial-g design the astronauts would use when they slept.

The thinking was that the partial-g effects would offset the effects of zero-g and extend autonomous operations in deep space.

It was a direct expansion from the research done at MIT and it seemed doable. There was even a proposal to test it on the ISS.​

​An 'ISS Demonstrator' version was drawn up, including build and launch schedules (39 months from the project start) as well as preliminary budgetary estimates ($83 to $143 million USD).  

This would have been the first in-space demonstration of artificial gravity, but ...

ISS demonstrator of NASA's Nautilus-X's centrifuge.

ISS demonstrator of NASA's Nautilus-X's centrifuge. Credit: Mark L Holderman - NASA Technology Applications Assessment Team

... it was canceled before it ever got beyond the initial drawing and proposal stage.​

Why?

Budget constraints. Competing priorities. Politics. Who really knows?

Whatever the reason, the research into artificial gravity again took a back seat to microgravity research and the effects zero-g has on the human body.

But fear not -- all is not lost.

With the explosion in commercial space travel and space tourism, David Baker believes there may be more pressure to develop systems capable of artificial gravity. As he said in an interview with the BBC:

A hotel in space would definitely need artificial gravity. Given that 50% of people get space sickness, if we have hotels in Earth orbit then artificial gravity would be essential.

Yes it would.

The sooner the better.

​What do you think? Is artificial gravity needed for our Journey to Mars? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

14 comments

  1. Horst Luening 9 May, 2017 at 09:04 Reply

    @Vincent Diepeveen
    Sorry Vincent, you will be proved wrong in the upcoming decades. Hopefully we are living long enough to see that happen. Mankind never stopped exploration. They wont stop here either.

  2. JohnnySapcer 16 February, 2016 at 20:52 Reply

    The torus for the ISS centrifuge seems too small. It is too small in radius … Your head would be traveling faster than your feet …. Would you lay down in it?

    • Joel Ammons
      Joel Ammons 16 February, 2016 at 23:51 Reply

      You got it. That was exactly the idea. The centtifuge section was meant only for sleeping quarters. A few hours each day in a high grav area is thought to be enough to offset the negative effects of zero g.

  3. ANT_Z 16 February, 2016 at 03:17 Reply

    the funniest thing is that experimental module rots in JAXA frontyard. It was made for providig some art.gravity, but never flown up.

  4. Robert Hutchison 26 January, 2016 at 14:00 Reply

    I agree we need artificial gravity, especially in long time space missions! A wheel would be the ideal shape…but how big would it have to be to not cause discomfort to the passengers? And if there are going to be space stations for tourists, artificial gravity is a must! 2 of the most famous, at least to me, space stations were both circular and spinning, the first one was the Walt Disney one with Werner von Braun shown in the late 50s, early 60s during the Disney TV show and the second is obvious to anyone who watched 2001: A Space Odyssey!

    • Vincent Diepeveen 26 January, 2016 at 18:06 Reply

      @Robert, as for Mars, it’s possible with some newer upcoming technology (though not clear to me when we have it available) to shorten a mission to mars to couple of weeks when that really would be a problem. So artificial gravity wouldn’t be needed for that mission.

      The problems would start once you land on the planet.

      the marsonauts go live rest of their life in a water tight sealed bunker (to not let the CO2 get in) rest of their short lived lives – and back on earth the bookmakers will do good business allowing bets how many months until all marsonauts are dead because of unforeseen equipment failure this or deadly mistake that.

      And all that to operate a few robots from their bunker, which also could get operated from planet earth.

  5. Kyle Visel-Kelly 26 January, 2016 at 09:09 Reply

    Artificial gravity is vary needed for space travel. It is critical for the health safety of astronauts. Id love to be one of the candidates for the mars mission!!! It would be a dream come true.

  6. Vincent Diepeveen 26 January, 2016 at 05:07 Reply

    No it is not needed – because shipping humans to Mars is total nonsense and waste of money. We have robots nowadays . Cheaper and allows more missions and robots don’t need gravity to travel to Mars.

    If you can find 10 trillion dollar though in a commercial manner then you are free to ship from your own cash a manned mission to planet death.

    There is no atmosphere on Mars and there never will be. Mars is too small to hold the atmosphere (it would blow away from the planet) and it’s not having an earth magnetic field protecting from the Sun.

    So any manned mission to Mars is a suicide mission anyway. Matter of time before all persons are dead because of problem this or problem that.

    Putting a human being on Mars would be the largest waste of money ever.

  7. Larry Kennedy 25 January, 2016 at 15:05 Reply

    It reminds me of the fight to get ion engines actually flying. It seems like NASA is ultra conservative on some things.

  8. Robert Moore 25 January, 2016 at 14:57 Reply

    Yes, bone wastage and the other serious health effects associated with protracted zero-g environments. More seriously, through, will be radiation exposure; both while heading to and from Mars and also while on the surface. This article represents a good overview of this topic. How many of a “g” would these methods generate? And how much a degree of a g is sufficient to support the health and wellbeing of future astronauts, esp. on missions lasting several years or more?

    • Joel Ammons
      Joel Ammons 25 January, 2016 at 15:55 Reply

      You’re right, Robert. Radiation is definitely a problem as well. For your question about ‘how many g’s do these methods generate’, it varies. Some researchers estimate as little as .2g in a small centrifuge-type system will be enough and have experimented with that. Others estimate .3g is a minimum.

    • Vincent Diepeveen 26 January, 2016 at 05:44 Reply

      @RobertMoore – travellers would die anyway when arriving at Mars.

      The journey itself to Mars will shortened to weeks – yet that doesnt’ make the problem smaller. And it also is a one way suicide mission. There is no journey back of course (too expensive).

      If you calculate the needs for humans to survive on Mars with no quick means of shipping a ‘rescue shuttle’ – you’re gonna be in for a shock.

      First of all big mining equipment needs to get flown in. Mars is too hostile of a planet to survive on the surface. You need to DIG deep cave systems there. Only several meters below the surface the harakiri visitors on Mars are safe from the Suns radiation – otherwise a quick death will occur.

      Little is known what happens if the body misses the earth magnetic field. Our body is adjusted to that. If it’s no longer there on Mars, what will the effect be on the body?

      The smaller gravity on Mars – another major problem as you already mention.

      If that means persons can live only a year or 2 you have nothing to worry about anyway – they’ll die sooner on Mars anyway.

      Yet the real problem is the amount of supplies and materials you need to ship over there to keep humans alive. Keep in mind lots of mining equipment. We’re looking at 5k – 10k tons of equipment or so just for a chance to not directly die – which includes a nuclear power central or 2, to produce heat and enough power for mining operations and producing your own steel and structures.

      Any structure produced there would be more similar to bunkers from the cold war – so big engineering and every structure you build is really complicated to build. That requires huge amounts of energy.

      Another problem is that there isn’t any atmosphere that’s worth mentionning. There is mainly CO2. That stuff is totally poisenous and acid. So every bunker needs to be totally air and water proof. Also CO2 is heavier than Oxygen – that brings additional problems.

      Mars has not any tools. You need lathes and stuff to produce new materials for lathe. Shipping just 2 lathes would be risky. You need thousands of spare electromotors from different sizes and strengths. Steppers and brushless motors.

      A single setback is directly deadly there so you need backups and redundancy. If a harddrive fails here you plug in a spare one and order a new one. “ordering” is a major problem there as a new mission would cost billions just to ship your supplies and earth and Mars could at that moment be far away from each other causing a mission to get to you to take nearly half a year or so (with newer rockets that travel way faster).

      No working lathe anymore? Then you die.
      Nuclear power centrals have a problem? Then you soon are out of heat to heat all the bunkers you got with plants.

      You need very reliable power source. A single nuclear plant wouldn’t be enough. You need a second one and even THAT is a big risk.

      A few solar cells on Mars just can’t generate the huge amount of power you need. You need basically equipment to PRODUCE your own solar cells. You need a full hospital with all its chirurgical tools and you need loads of backups. Otherwise even a simple fracture is potentially deadly.

      You need basically everything that’s not easy to manufacture at Mars itself.

      If you just start calculating in realistic manner what you need – you end up in the thousands of tons of supplies. Heaviest of all is the mining equipment. That needs an amount of spare parts that’s just going to be so so heavy.

      On Mars there is no alternative for steel simply. You need to build your own steel melting ovens on Mars powered by a nuclear central.

      So the first priority would be shipping lots of robots to open up mines in Mars and find iron ore and start melting it. There is no replacement for steel simply (yeah sure titanium would do yet that’s even tougher to melt).

      If you add all this up and we do a simple calculation. Let’s start with some serious budget you might be able to get. Say 40 billion dollar for the mission and calculate how many kilo’s you would be able to ship to Mars.

      40 billion dollar / $100k = 40 000 * 10 = 400k kilo.
      Just 400 tons.

      That for sure is not even *remotely* enough to ship mining equipment. Bulldozers, nuclear power plants thousands of strong industrial motors and so on and so on. Chirurgical equipment. Bunches of lathes and 3d printers. Material to build your own steel melting factory, mining equipment and so on and so on. Let’s not forget lots of light bulbs and some ASML Wafer machines to produce chips over there (solar panels, memory chips, cpu’s etc).

      How to transport a wafer machine to outer space and land it on Mars without damaging it too much?

      Every device you build on Mars needs its own processor ideally.

      If you add it all up – let’s just not waste all that cash and just ship a few robots to Mars. That makes more sense. We no longer live in the 1960s. We have robots nowadays…

      A mission to Mars would only be great for Hollywood – and bad for humankind. As it would be so expensive and such a failure that probably NASA and ESA no longer get a budget at all – because you know in advance that they would ship too little equipment to Mars causing anyone arriving there to die with 100% sureness.

      The question you should ask yourself is this: if you have marsonauts who operate robots and mining robots from a bunker deep under the surface on Mars. What’s the difference with operating them from planet earth?

      Is it worth spending a couple of trillions of dollars onto a manned mission to Mars just for shortening the distance to operate a robot?

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