China has built an artificial moon on Earth that simulates low-gravity conditions – the first of its kind. The facility is expected to play a key role in China’s future lunar missions.
Speaking on Tuesday, scientist Li Ruilin, from the China University of Mining and Technology, said that the artificial moon project in eastern city of Xuzhou is expected to be officially launched in the coming months.
Li described the program as “first of its kind in the world” and said it takes lunar simulation to a completely new level, as it can make gravity “disappear” and can “last as long as you want.”
The facility is made up of a vacuum chamber which houses a mini “moon” measuring 60cm (about two feet) in diameter. The moon-like landscape is made up of rocks and dust that are as light as those found on our Moon.
The landscape is supported by a magnetic field, like the Moon – where gravity is approximately one-sixth as strong as the gravity on Earth. Where the field is strong enough, certain light objects, such as a frog or chestnut, can levitate.
Li said the project is likely to play an important role in preparing for Chinese lunar operations, allowing scientists to test equipment and even prevent miscalculations that could prove costly on the Moon itself.
“Some experiments such as an impact test need just a few seconds [in the simulator],” said Li, adding that “others such as creep testing can take several days.”
The scientist noted that it could also be used to test whether 3D printing works on the Moon or whether lunar settlements would be able to survive.
“Some experiments conducted in the simulated environment can also give us some important clues, such as where to look for water trapped under the surface,” he said.
Li said that a number of technical innovations were needed to make the facility, noting that the magnetic forces needed to create the atmosphere are so strong that they can tear apart components like superconducting wires and render many metallic components useless.
He added that the facility, which was inspired by Andre Geim’s experiments to levitate a frog with a magnet, would be open to researchers from around the world.