Increasing Interest for Microgravity Research
Food colouring and pieces of an effervescent tablet inside a water bubble onboard the ISS. Image credit: Red EPIC Dragon Camera, NASA
Increasing Interest for Microgravity Research
Microgravity research is rapidly gaining popularity all around the UK, why are weightless environments so important and who benefits from them? Let’s start from the beginning and take a look at what microgravity is and how it can improve our life.
What is Microgravity?
Star formation, ocean tides, apples falling downwards from trees. What is the common driving force behind each one? It is Gravity - the fundamental force that keeps our feet to the ground, the Moon around the Earth and planets on their orbits. Simply put, gravity is what pulls objects towards one another, depending strongly on both mass and distance. Fun fact: it also affects light not just mass, but that’s a story for another day!
But what exactly is Microgravity?
Microgravity is the very small gravitational pull found in outer space. And yes, there is gravity everywhere in space! To illustrate, a microgravity environment is when the force is so small that you can no longer feel its effects and objects become weightless. It is often referred to as zero gravity, but gravitational forces are never zero, thus why micro is a more suitable term. The perfect example is the International Space Station, which finds itself in a constant free-fall state around the Earth, hence generating a nearly gravity-free environment and allowing astronauts to float on-board the spacecraft.
Why is Microgravity important and who needs it?
Why is it important?
The moment you take gravity out of the equation many physical or biological phenomena will behave differently. By observing those effects, scientists are able to determine how we can benefit from the lack of it, while gaining a better understanding towards what gravity actually does to different types of matter. This is of great importance to many field, providing both valuable research and commercial opportunities.
Who needs it?
There are multiple sectors that can benefit from gravity-free research, some more surprising than others.
Two of the main markets that stand out are BioMedicine and Materials Research. When talking about pharmaceuticals, the microgravity environment can change the development of crystal and molecular structures. The possibility of producing better drugs in weightlessness is also taken into account by many researchers, as the studies are quickly advancing and the results are optimistic. On the other hand, microgravity enables the manufacturing of materials that could not be otherwise produced on Earth, such as materials with less impurities which are proved to be more efficient. This development alone would automatically unlock new opportunities on Earth, revolutionise the entire communication system, and even put the basis for a new economical boom.
Other on-going research examples include bone density studies, embryonic development, stem cell research and biomaterial 3D printers to only name a few.
Microgravity Demand and Capabilities in the UK
In terms of who is showing the most interest in the gravity-free research sphere, the USA are leading the charge today, with Europe coming in second and Japan third. What is more, the UK is on top of the list within Europe, recognising both the academic and the commercial values that lay ahead.
From Space Agencies and Providers, to Brokers and Users, multiple organisations around the UK are showing their support towards the commercialisation of the emerging microgravity sector, while encouraging new research and exploration activities at the same time. The UK Space Agency alone has been offering multiple scientific and business oriented funding opportunities in the past 3 years, while other organisations such as the South West Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications are bringing awareness to the services and applications of microgravity.
Microgravity environment on Earth vs in Space
In order to perform any research, scientists across the UK must use either the ISS or other platforms that replicate the necessary conditions.
One of the ways to simulate such an environment on Earth is by using a drop tower, where objects find themselves in a free-falling state, thus becoming weightless relative to each other. The downside of such facilities is the limited experimental time, as the exposure would only last for 2 to 9 seconds.
The ISS on the other hand is the perfect laboratory, finding itself in a permanent free-fall state. Unfortunately, the research demand cannot be met by the ISS alone, as getting there is quite difficult and the waiting time between experimental design and implementation is long.
Is there a middle way? Parabolic flights are another alternative, and were first proposed in 1950. The concept is simple, an aircraft is flown in a series of parabolas, travelling up and down and offering around 20 seconds of microgravity per parabola. The manoeuvre can be repeated up to 31 times, summing up to over 10 minutes of fractionated weightlessness periods in one flight.
What about a way of achieving an even lower gravitational pull, while the microgravity period remains unfractionated? Sub-orbital flights might be the key, offering the best of both worlds: real space environment for 3-6 minutes and enough flight capabilities, thanks to the commercialisation of space combined with the rapid development of New Space companies.
What is Next
The interesting effects of microgravity have caught our attention since the Cold War Space Race, with great advancements being made ever since in regards to terrestrial simulated weightlessness. Nowadays we are witnessing a new scientific era, where space is becoming more and more accessible with each passing day, enabling more space-based research to be conducted than ever before. Microgravity studies have the potential to improve both our life on Earth and our understanding of space itself, and the exploration of their possibilities is just starting.
1. AirZeroG (2020), How Zero-Gravity Parabolic Flights Work;
2. AirZeroG (2020), Scientific Research Services;
3. Bloomberg QuickTake Originals (2019), Microgravity Will Change How We Make Everything;
4. DiFrancesco, J. and Olson, J. (2015), The economics of microgravity research. npj Microgravity, 1;
5. ESA (2020), Microgravity And Drop Towers;
6. ISS National Laboratory (2020), 3D Printer For Human Tissue Now Available For Research Onboard The ISS National Laboratory;
7. NASA (2020), In-Space Manufacturing; NASA (2020), What Is Microgravity?;
8. Parabolic Arc (2020), UK Space Agency Launches Competition For Business Ideas To Test On Space Station;
9. South West Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications (2020), Microgravity Services & Applications Webinar;
10. UK Space Agency Blog (2018), Microgravity Science In The Sky;
11. UK Space (2017), More Than £3M Invested In Space Exploration.