Tunable gravity

by JMill. March 15, 2024 | Space for Earthlings 🌏🛰️


If gravity could be changed with the twist of a knob, what would you do with it? This rhetorical question has historically been only hypothetical for nearly all of us outside of certain scientific research communities. However, orbiting platforms and small satellites are providing new capabilities for in-space testing and manufacturing in sustained microgravity (“low-G”) and no-gravity (“zero-G”) environments. No longer must a research team exploit an airplane’s parabolic nosedive for a brief thirty-second low-gravity ‘window of opportunity’ afforded by specialty companies such as Zero-G. You can book your own flight, but for the rest of us landlubbers, we can daydream by watching how music group OK GO produced the video for one of their hit songs. 

“No one knows how organisms respond to other levels of gravity,” stated Marybeth Edeen, ISS Research Integration Office Manager at Johnson Space Center, in NASA’s Spinoff publication. Biological processes may behave differently at different gravities, the study of which is anticipated to have favorable implications on pharmacology, materials development, electronics fabrication, and a variety of other fields. For example, an improved hepatitis C treatment explored by Schering-Plough Research Institute was developed by forming better protein crystal structures in a weightless environment. The result was a protein structure that was better targeted at hep-C while curtailing side effects.

Academic and corporate experiments conducted aboard the International Space Station using Techshot’s Multi-Use Variable-Gravity Platform (MVP), which simulates any level gravity between weightlessness and twice Earth’s gravity (“2 G”), is one key tool among others including bioprinters for producing organs from stem cells, zero-G deposition printing of metals and electronics. Varda Space Industries is building in-space manufacturing capabilities with early interest among pharmaceutical companies. Space Tango is among a cohort of organizations that are exploring the commercial opportunities enabled by viewing gravity as a variable rather than a constant. One of Space Tango’s customers, Lambda Vision, is developing retinal implants requiring thin, even layers so recipient patients can gain restored sight. Earth’s gravity makes the layers settle unevenly, so, despite the cost penalty of orbital launch and recovery, “The goal … is to test out the new automated process [and] produce the implants on a commercial scale,” states Space Tango founder Twyman Clements  …Space is really a means to an end, and so we use space to create these things – retinal implants, fiber-optic cables – for the benefit of Earth.”(As quoted in NASA’s Spinoff.)


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