Chinese scientists have built an "artificial moon"research facility that will enable them to simulate low gravity environments using magnetism.
The plant, scheduled for official launch this year, will use powerful magnetic fields inside a vacuum chamber 2 feet (60 centimeters) in diameter to make gravity "disappear." The researchers were inspired by an earlier experiment that used magnets to hover a seed.
Li Ruilin, a Geotechnical Engineer at China University of Mining and Technology, told the South China Morning Post that the chamber, which will be filled with rock and dust to mimic the surface of the moon, is "the first of its kind in the world", and that it could maintain such low-gravity conditions "for as long as you want".
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Scientists plan to use the plant to test technology in long-term low-gravity environments before sending it to the moon, where gravity is only one-sixth of its strength at the earth. This will allow them to remove any expensive technical cracks, as well as test whether certain structures will survive on the moon's surface and assess the viability of a human settlement there.
"Some experiments, such as an impact test, require only a few seconds [in the simulator]"But others, such as creep tests, can take several days." A creep test measures how much a material will deform under a constant temperature and stress.
According to the researchers, the inspiration for the chamber came from Andre Geim, a physicist at the University of Manchester in the UK who won the satirical Ig Nobel Prize in 2000 for designing an experiment that made a seed float with a magnet.
The levitation trick used by Geim and now in the artificial lunar chamber comes from an effect called diamagnetic levitation. Atoms consist of atomic nuclei and tiny electrons orbiting them in small circuits; these moving currents, in turn, induce small magnetic fields. Usually, the randomly oriented magnetic fields of all the atoms in an object are eliminated, whether they belong to a drop of water or a seed, and no magnetism manifests itself in the whole material.
However, apply an external magnetic field to these atoms and everything changes: the electrons will change their motion and produce their own magnetic field to oppose the applied field. If the external magnet is strong enough, the magnetic repulsive force between it and the field of atoms will grow strong enough to overcome gravity and soar the object - whether it is an advanced piece of lunar technology or a confused toad - into the air.
The tests conducted in the chamber will be used to inform China's lunar exploration program Chang'e, which got its name from the Chinese goddess of the moon. This initiative includes Chang'e 4, which landed a rover on the other side of the moon in 2019, and Chang'e 5, which retrieved rock samples from the moon's surface in 2020. China has also stated that it will establish a lunar research station on the moon's. South Pole by 2029.
Originally published on Live Science.