LIMS Explains: Microgravity Research

When thinking of gravity, it’s likely you’ll imagine it as the invisible force that draws falling objects to Earth, ties the moon to our orbit and keeps our feet on the ground.

But as the only environmental stimulus that has not changed throughout evolution, gravity has shaped every part of life. All biological systems in plants and animals, including humans, have evolved to work under the gravitational force we experience on Earth (i.e. 1G).

Some of these systems include things like blood flow, wound healing, bone density, how cells hold together, and even the direction plants grow and the forms they take.

One way to gain a better understanding of these systems is to put them in microgravity – that condition of weightlessness or free fall which is experienced in space, where gravitational force is very low or negligible.

Microgravity can change how biological systems behave and investigating them in microgravity conditions can reveal new aspects of how they work in ways which would not be observable in normal lab conditions.

To conduct microgravity research, scientists can shoot rockets or satellites into space, or even travel there themselves. But the research can also be conducted on Earth by creating or simulating microgravity conditions.

One way this can be achieved is by using lab-based equipment like Clinostats, which have a slowly revolving disc that simulates microgravity on growing plants by changing the direction the disc turns. Microgravity conditions can also be created in facilities like Drop Towers: long, vertical tube-shaped structures with a vacuum inside that allows objects to free-fall with minimal friction.

Scientists can also conduct this research on parabolic plane flights. The aircraft pilots perform a particular manoeuvre in a parabolic flight path similar to an old-fashioned rollercoaster track. Weightlessness is experienced at the peak of each parabola, while the acceleration phases of the flight at the bottom of the curve produce a gravitational force 1.8 times that which is experienced on the ground (i.e. 1.8G).

By gaining a better understanding of how biological systems behave in microgravity, we can then harness this knowledge to develop techniques and technologies to help improve life on Earth.

But not only that – with humanity moving closer to a new era of space exploration, this research can help us understand how to sustain life amongst the stars as well.

EVENT: The first week of December is the Melbourne International Space Festival 2023. If you would like to find out more about current space research in Australia and overseas, make sure you join us on 7 December for the “Life in Space” Symposium. Register here.