A Matter of Gravity

In the sky this week…

  • Saturn is low in the southwest after sunset.
  • Jupiter rises around midnight and Mars about 3 a.m.
  • The Moon will reach First Quarter on August 6.

Ken Tapping, August 3, 2011

We have all heard terms like “zero gravity” and “microgravity” used to describe conditions in space or in spacecraft. We hear of things being done under zero gravity, and astronauts on the International Space Station performing experiments under microgravity. Firstly, a term like zero gravity is just plain wrong. There is no place in the universe where there is no gravity; it is the common force that binds the whole thing together. Gravity is everywhere. Secondly, microgravity experiments are not done where gravity is weak; they are done where the effects of gravity are small within the framework of the experiment. So if there is gravity everywhere, then how do astronauts float around inside and outside the International Space Station, or work on the Hubble Space Telescope, which also seem to be floating? It’s simple; none of those things are floating. They are falling.

Astronauts participate in “Return to Flight” training. Credit: courtesy of nasaimages.org

Astronauts participate in “Return to Flight” training. Credit: courtesy of nasaimages.org

Imagine we have built a tower 1000 km high. When we step out onto the observation platform at the top (wearing space suits of course), we notice we still have weight and can walk around. We feel a little lighter, about three-quarters of what we weigh on the ground, because the gravitational attraction becomes weaker as we move away from the Earth. If we step off that platform we will fall straight down, just as if we stepped off a more conventional high building, with the same ultimate result.

Now imagine we have a nice, big cannon at the top of the tower. We put in a load of gunpowder and then a cannonball. When we fire it, the cannonball comes out of the muzzle flying almost horizontally. Its path curves downward as gravity gets to work, and it finally it hits the ground some distance away. So we load the cannon again, cramming in a lot more gunpowder before putting in the cannonball. This time the cannonball leaves the muzzle much faster, its path curves downward much more gently, and it hits the ground further away. So we cram in even more powder. (Incidentally, this is an ‘imagined’ experiment; don’t try it). If we make the cannonball leave the muzzle fast enough, its curve downward under gravity will be so gentle that the Earth’s surface curves away underneath it, so that the cannonball never hits the ground. It simply loops around the Earth. It is in orbit.

In a similar fashion, the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station, thousands of satellites, millions of pieces of space junk, and the odd astronaut, are all falling round and round the Earth, because they are moving horizontally fast enough for their curving paths never to touch the ground. The most truthful way to describe their condition is that they are in “free fall”. In the same way, the Moon is free-falling around the Earth, and the Earth free-falling around the Sun. If we are in the International Space Station, we and the station are falling, just as if we were in a freely falling elevator. Without a window to look through, there is no way to tell the difference. If you are falling freely, you feel weightless. In the space station, or in that elevator, we are in a microgravity environment. In both cases we can do experiments requiring microgravity conditions, except that in that falling elevator, they better not take too long.

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council's Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton, BC, V2A 6J9.

Telephone: 250-497-2300
Fax: 250-497-2355
E-mail: ken.tapping@nrc-cnrc.gc.ca

Date modified: