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China builds an artificial ‘moon’, “the first simulator of its kind in the world” that can make gravity “disappear”


12 ene 2022 14:42 GMT

The facility is expected to play a key role in the Asian country’s future lunar missions, including infrastructure construction.

A team of Chinese scientists has built a research facility that simulates the low gravity environment of the Moon. Located in the city of Xuzhou, the simulator could provide valuable data for the Asian giant’s lunar exploration activities, they detailed this Tuesday to the South China Morning Post the investigators.

According to Li Ruilin, lead scientist on the project at the China University of Mining and Technology, it is the “first of its kind in the world,” which would take lunar simulation to a whole new level. The simulator can make gravity “disappear”. Although low gravity can be achieved in an airplane or a drop tower, it is momentary, while in the new facility that effect can “last as long as you want,” he added.

How does it work?

The scientist explained that a vacuum chamber was installed at the heart of the simulator that houses a ‘miniluna’ 60 centimeters in diameter. The artificial lunar landscape is made up of rocks and dust, as light as those of the Earth’s natural satellite – where gravity is about a sixth of that of our planet -, in part because they are supported by a magnetic field.

When the field is strong enough can magnetize and levitate objects: from a live frog to a chestnut against gravitational force. “Some experiments, like bump tests, only take a few seconds [en el simulador]”Li explained.” But others, like creep tests, can take several days, “he added.

Simulating the harsh lunar environment on Earth was no easy task: the necessary magnetic force is so strong that it could destroy components such as superconducting cables. To this must be added the many metal components required for the vacuum chamber, which do not work properly near a strong magnet. Li explained that the team developed a series of technical innovations to overcome these problems, such as the simulation of moondust that could more easily float in the magnetic field, and the substitution of steel for aluminum in some of the key components.

What will it be used for?

The facility, which will be commissioned in the coming months, is expected to play a key role in China’s future lunar missions, including building infrastructure on the moon, Li said.

For example, may allow scientists to test equipment (and potentially avoid costly miscalculations) in a simulation of the extreme lunar environment, where rocks and dust can behave completely differently than they do on Earth. There is no atmosphere on the Moon, the temperature can change rapidly and dramatically, and under low-gravity conditions, soil particles are more closely tied to each other.

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According to Li, the lunar simulator could also be used to test whether new technologies, such as 3D printing, could be used to build structures on the lunar surface. Also, it would help assess whether it is possible to build a permanent human settlement there, including issues like the surface’s ability to trap heat, he said. “Some experiments done in the simulated environment can also give us some important clues, like where to look for trapped water under the surface,” he added.

China’s plans for lunar exploration

Currently, China plans to take the lead in a new international space race. That includes its lunar exploration program, named after the mythical moon goddess Chang’e and whose recent missions include landing a rover on the moon in 2019.

Also, Beijing plans to take taikonauts to the moon by 2030 and establish a joint lunar research base with Russia. Chinese space authorities declared last December that construction on the research station could begin in 2027, years ahead of schedule. For its part, NASA wants to send astronauts to the Moon in 2024, as part of its program Artemis.

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