Friday, April 12, 2013

The Gravity of the Situation: Puzzling Out Artificial Gravity


Assuming that you have watched even a couple science fiction programs you’ve likely seen characters in ships in space. The odd thing is that rather than floating weightlessly through the air as they ought to be doing they’re walking around like it’s just another day in a gravity well like that of the one on planet earth. Though the explanations for this are many the satisfying answers are few.

Typical Explanations
As I said there are many explanations for how artificial gravity works throughout science fiction. Though they’re likely all fallacious, let’s take a look at some of the more prevalent ones, if for nothing more than a chuckle.
Halo – while some of the early books make mention that humanity hadn’t quite gotten the grasp of artificial gravity at this point we see master chief and his inevitably doomed cohorts strolling through their ships weighed down by some form of artificial gravity. The explanation is simply the use of stolen alien technology. Unfortunately short of E.T. crashing here and bartering off parts of his ship to make a collect call, I don’t see this as a viable option for our future artificial gravity needs.
Star Trek – With all the “tech talk” in Star Trek you’d think at some point they’d mention how the artificial gravity works, unfortunately to my knowledge it’s never really explained. This is understandable as such a reliable technology must be well understood by everyone. Seriously have you ever seen the ship loose gravity when it becomes damaged?
Star Wars – Truly unique in their approach to explaining their artificial gravity technology the Star Wars franchise (though I love it to death) doesn’t really explain any of its technology with artificial gravity being no exception. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you already know we’ve figured out that it’s some form of “gravity plating” but that’s the best we’ve got.
Stargate – Somehow once humans get advanced technology and start building ships they just have the artificial gravity. Maybe I missed something, but I don’t see the elements they discovered generating gravity and for some reason I don’t think the switch from silicon chips to silicon crystals would make the difference.
Periodic Table of Elements + Eezo
Mass Effect – arguably the most compelling of the explanations for the artificial gravity technology (and frankly the only one that really bothers addressing the question at all) is the manipulation of an electrical current through an as of yet undiscovered element called “element zero” or “eezo” for short. Based on this name one could assume that the element is one that contains no protons at all meaning that it could still easily be added to the periodic table of elements without trying to find a convenient gap of some sort. As the element has yet to be discovered however, it presents an issue when considering it as a viable technology for use in early space exploration and colonization.

Possible Alternatives
While the explanations of popular science fiction are a bit lacking there are some viable alternatives available to solve this problem that exist right now.
Weighted Clothing – more for colonization efforts than for actual space travel the idea of using weighted clothing or rather clothing and accessories with a greater mass than we typically wear on earth is one possible avenue we could pursue to compensate for the degenerative effects of low gravity environments on the human body. The idea is simple: because the planets gravity is weaker thus exerting a weaker pull on your present mass, you can increase your mass (preferably through use of weighted clothing rather than weight gain) to increase the effect of the planet’s gravity on you personally. While each set of clothes would need to be custom engineered to each person, this could help people colonize nearby lower gravity worlds without worrying about muscle loss from living in the low gravity environment.
Magnetic Materials – more specifically for ships than colonies, the use of magnetic materials in clothing combined with the generation of a low-level electromagnetic field under the deck could exert enough force to simulate gravity on a space vessel. While, as with the weighted clothing option this would require appropriate distribution of the material so exertion would be placed where it was needed and not all in one or two places, this technology could be used to allow for upright bipedal locomotion on a space bound vessel without concern for muscular dystrophy over a long period of time.
Centripetal Force – My favorite of the possible solutions for simulating gravity is the use of centripetal force (and thanks to Big Bang Theory for the explanation of how this works) to provide the sensation of gravity while in a weightless environment. Using this technology could provide artificial gravity to ships and space stations over a long duration without the need to alter their occupant’s attire

Conclusions
It’s hard to tell what the future will hold for mankind, but I can honestly say I’m excited to see what’s to come. Regardless of what technologies are eventually used to compensate for the lack of gravity in space you can be sure that they’ll meet with a cheer of approval here at the N3rd C0rn3r.