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China builds ‘artificial moon’ to simulate low gravity inspired by a levitating frog

The fake world is only 6cm in diameter but could be crucial in helping spacecraft explore the larger one

Adam Smith
Wednesday 12 January 2022 13:11 GMT
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China has built an artificial moon research facility that simulates low-gravity environments, which will help it explore the satellite further.

The facility, which will be officially launched in the coming months, can apparently make gravity “disappear” in an effect that can “last as long as you want” according to Li Ruilin, from the China University of Mining and Technology.

The artificial moon itself is in a vacuum chamber, although it is only 60 centimetres in diameter compared to the 3,474.8 kilometres of the actual moon.

The landscape is made up of rocks and dust like that on the Moon and is supported by a magnetic field strong enough to levitate small objects – including a chestnut and a live frog.

“Some experiments such as an impact test need just a few seconds [in the simulator],” Li told the South China Morning Post. “But others such as creep testing can take several days.”

The facility will allow scientists to test equipment in a lunar environment – potentially avoiding costly mistakes.

The Chang’e mission, which has placed a rover on the far side of the Moon and returned rock samples to Earth, did not manage to recover as many samples as intended because the drill hit unexpected resistance. It is possible that experiments conducted on smaller models could avoid these events in future.

The simulator could also be used to test whether 3D printing could be used to construct structures –including those fit for human habitation - on the Moon’s surface.

The idea for the facility came from an experiment that levitated a frog with a magnet, conducted by physicist Andrew Geim, that won the Russian scientist the satirical Ig Nobel prize.

“Magnetic levitation is certainly not the same as antigravity, but there is a variety of situations where mimicking microgravity by magnetic fields could be invaluable to expect the unexpected in space research”, he told the publication.

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