Scientists in China built an artificial moon research facility that allows them to simulate low-gravity conditions on Earth for small objects, a report from The Independent reveals.
The new development comes at a time in which China is ambitiously striving to join the elite of the space superpowers, the U.S. and Russia. The country's space agency, the CNSA, hopes the new facility will help it prepare to send its first crewed mission to the Moon.
Artificial moon makes gravity 'disappear'
The artificial moon is housed inside a vacuum chamber that is only 23.6 in (60 cm) in diameter. It is set to be officially launched this year and it will be able to make gravity "disappear" for "as long as you want" Li Ruilin, from the China University of Mining and Technology, said in an interview with the South China Morning Post, which is the only source so far who's got in touch with the researchers on this particular research as of yet.
"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 researchers use a magnetic field that is strong enough to magnetize and levitate small objects. In fact, the facility itself was inspired by experiments by physicist Andrew Geim in which he levitated a frog using magnets.
China's ambitious space program aims beyond the Moon
While China's magnetic artificial moon facility certainly doesn't provide a like-for-like simulation of low-gravity, it does allow for equipment to be tested in similar conditions. The CNSA hopes that the new facility will help it to test lunar equipment on Earth inside the small simulated space. One example will see the researchers test whether 3D printing equipment can be utilized in low-gravity conditions, to test whether the technology could be sent for construction of lunar habitats and other equipment.
Most recent gravity simulation proposals were made for future spinning space habitats, such as the proposal for a "megasatellite settlement" orbiting Ceres by researchers from the Finnish Meteorological Institute and Orbital Assembly's space hotel. Instead of using magnets, both of these will gently rotate to simulate gravity in outer space.
China's space agency recently became the first to detect water from the Moon's surface via its Chang'e-5 lunar probe. The fast-growing space program also aims to reach Mars before NASA and SpaceX by sending a crewed mission to the red planet by 2033.