Written by TKS Boston Student Amelia Settembre.
Artificial gravity has been one of the biggest question marks when considering actual, plausible space flight — and more specifically, improving it for the people. Of course, there are still a ton of issues with the current system, and our knowledge of artificial gravity is a far cry from futuristic shows like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. For a brief overview of artificial gravity, check out my other article on it here.
So now let’s take the next step deeper and look at some of the physics, both known and experimental, that physicists are analyzing this very moment to improve future space tech. In current gravity, the gravity of an object increases when the mass does. Unfortunately, when an astronaut is on a spaceship, there isn’t enough difference in mass for the craft to generate enough gravity to keep the astronaut on it.
Back in Einstein’s time, he proposed something called the equivalence principle, which basically stated that gravitational force is indistinguishable from a pseudo-force generated in an accelerated frame of reference. This meant that we didn’t need to have a massive, planet-sized spacecraft, we only need to have sufficient acceleration to simulate gravity.
As it turns out, there are three big types of acceleration:
Spinning water in a bucket is a great example of rotational acceleration.
For humans, we can’t go above a certain amount of g-force. On Earth, the g-force we experience is around 1 g. That’s not very much. However, air force pilots often experience intense change in the g-force. The most g-force any human has managed to survive is 214g, which occurred during a car racing match.
On the Enterprise, travelling at warp one, a human would be subjected to around 4,000 g. Unless in the distant future they’re able to come up with some kind of reverse-accelerator to protect astronauts, it’s not going to bode very well — for anyone. Now that we’ve ruled that out, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any ideas for getting stable artificial gravity. One of the biggest questions regarding this is compensation.
In other forces, like electromagnetism, you could just put all the people into a conductive capsule and block out the extra electromagnetic waves. The remaining amount can be contained and pushed around within the capsule, making it safe for the crew.
Unfortunately, there’s no negative gravitational mass in the known universe, which does make it more difficult to determine how to reverse the effects of gravity. However, in theory, if there is indeed a particle such as the “graviton”, then it’s possible for there to be another exotic particle, perhaps dubbed the “anti-graviton”. Up until this point, there’s no proof that the known universe even contains any gravitons.
That’s the biggest issue experienced with gravity — unlike other forces (like electricity) which have positive and negative values — it only has one, and that’s the attractive quality it always has. All this means is scientists are either going to have to get incredibly theoretical, find new physics, or just use the acceleration methods we all know and love.
The most considered one of these acceleration methods concerning artificial gravity is rotation. By taking a spacecraft and rotating it quickly, artificial gravity can theoretically be generated, holding the contents of the spacecraft secure.
As it turns out, physicists have designed formulas to calculate the exact acceleration of artificial gravity. In the formulas below, we’re assuming that there are two chambers in a spacecraft which are connected by a tunnel with a length of 2R. Here, let ‘v’ represent the frequency of the tunnel and ‘t’ can be the time period.
Remember that centripetal acceleration we talked about a little earlier with the circle figure? Well, it comes back into play here, as you’re trying to also solve for how it fits into the rotation of the artificial gravity chamber.
Before you reach the second half of the formula, add in ac=g, which helps figure out the calculations of the actual gravity (which is what you’re trying to determine in the first place). In this way, you can determine what the velocity ultimately has to be comfortable for the astronaut, which (above) would be equal to about 9.5 revolutions per minute 10 meters away from the axis of rotation.
So that’s how you calculate the basic rotating artificial gravity, which initially seems simple but isn’t as simple in the long run. However, that’s not saying that rotating artificial gravity is the only option: in fact, scientists are looking now into whether anti-matter or dark energy could provide insight into whether or not artificial gravity could be supported differently.
So I guess this isn’t about anti-gravity so much as it’s about anti-matter and its potential applications with regular gravity. Science right now talks about two really big ideas which encompass the definition of what mass is:
However, when looking at antimatter, you have to question the interaction it’s going to have with the actual matter. Although with antimatter, we’ve been able to create it and destroy it, as well as calculate seen the interactions it has with non-gravitational forces. However, it’s relatively uncertain how it would behave with gravity, as we’ve never been able to test that before.
One project working diligently on finding a response to this is the ALPHA experiment at CERN. This experiment has the goal of analyzing neutral antimatter and applying it’s reaction to gravitational forces. To directly quote the ALPHA website surrounding the outcome,
"The gravitational mass of antihydrogen is more than 110 times its inertial mass, or that it falls upwards with a gravitational mass more than 65 times its inertial mass."
That’s pretty impressive, as well as not necessarily expected. However, it does still have the question with different types of matter as to what would happen if antimatter is applied to the regular Earth, especially different varieties of particles. We’re still far from an answer of artificial gravity with antimatter, but this is a step in the right direction. There’s still a final idea which may answer these questions once and for all, and that’s string theory.
So this is the final question, and as we’ve worked our way from most plausible to (now) least plausible, it’s time for an analysis of quantum gravity and the workings behind it. Quantum gravity is essentially the analysis of gravity which is taken when assuming that quantum physics indefinitely plays a role. It’s known to exist in the realm of theoretical physics, which just means that most of the information is derived entirely on paper, typically with mathematics backing it up.
However, because of how theoretical quantum gravity truly is, there isn’t just one theory about how it could work, there are quite a few:
These certainly aren’t all the theories (there are over a dozen more), but they’re some of the most prominent ones featured in considering quantum gravity. However, in the end, we still have many more possible ways of determining artificial gravity, and quantum gravity doesn’t quite seem like the best way to start, given that it’s so theoretical.
Although scientists are working at making artificial gravity even better, there’s still an awful lot they don’t know and are still trying to understand. Gravity is one of the most mysterious forces in the known universe, and trying to sort through it naturally is going to take a bit of time. Who knows, maybe in a couple of centuries we’ll have figured out how to have artificial gravity a la the Enterprise! So to sum up:
Sometimes in order to truly get the gravity of a situation, one needs to take a step back and take a long look at everything in the picture — which is almost certainly more than meets the eye in artificial gravity.
Thank you for reading this article! I hope you enjoyed it and maybe learned something too ;)! If you’d like to connect, feel free to email me at email@example.com or find me on LinkedIn under Amelia Settembre.