After the Sun, China continues to build an 'artificial moon'

China built a research facility that simulates a low-gravity environment on the Moon, inspired by an experiment using magnets to make frogs hover.

The new facility could provide useful research for China's lunar exploration, according to the scientists involved in the project. Located in the city of Suzhou in Jiangsu province, the simulation environment is expected to officially open in the coming months. Lead researcher Li Ruilin from China University of Mines and Technology, said this is the first time such an environment has been built in the world.

Picture 1 of After the Sun, China continues to build an 'artificial moon'
The vacuum chamber in the center of the simulation environment contains an artificial Moon 60cm in diameter.

The simulated environment can cause gravity to "disappear". Although a plane or a free-falling tower can achieve low gravity, it only lasts for a split second. Li shared that in a simulated environment, this effect can last as long as you like. In the center of the facility is a vacuum chamber containing a small "Moon" 60 centimeters in diameter. The artificial Moon scene consists of many rocks and dust. Here, gravity is only 1/6 of Earth's gravity, thanks in part to the help of the magnetic field.

When the magnetic field is strong enough, it can magnetize and send anything from a live frog to a chestnut. "Some experiments like crash testing only need a few seconds in a simulated environment," explains Li. "But other experiments like cow trials can take several days."

According to Li, the idea of ​​​​building a simulated environment came from the experiment of making frogs fly with a magnet that helped Russian physicist Andre Geim win the Ig Nobel Prize in 2000. Geim, a professor at the University of Manchester, UK. , also won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on graphene. According to him, maglev is not necessarily antigravity, but there are countless situations in which simulating microgravity using a magnetic field could be useful in space research.

China is conducting a lunar exploration program called Chang'e, including the mission of sending a self-propelled robot to the dark side of the Moon in 2019, bringing lunar rock samples back to Earth in 2020. Next, China wants to send astronauts to the Moon by 2030 and establish a joint research facility with Russia. According to the country's authorities, the construction of the research station can begin as early as 2027. Meanwhile, NASA also plans to send astronauts back to the Moon in 2024 in the Artemis program.

The Suzhou facility will play a key role in China's future Moon missions, including building infrastructure on the Moon. The facility will allow scientists to test the device, preventing costly miscalculations. In an environment that simulates extreme conditions on the Moon, rocks and dust can behave differently than usual. In addition, without an atmosphere on the Moon, temperatures can vary rapidly and dramatically, and soil particles are more discretely bound together under low-gravity conditions.

According to Li, the environment simulating the Moon could be used to test whether new technology such as 3D printing could be used to build structures on celestial surfaces. It also helps assess the possibility of establishing permanent human settlements, including how well the ground absorbs heat.

Simulating the harsh environment of the Moon on Earth is no easy task, as it requires magnetic forces strong enough to break parts like superconducting wires. In addition, many metal parts required in the vacuum chamber do not function properly near strong magnets. Li and colleagues have developed many technical innovations to overcome these problems, including replacing steel with aluminum in some key parts. He said the facility in Suzhou will welcome researchers from all over the world.

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