Scientists Mimic Zero Gravity With Magnets
January 5, 2012

Scientists Mimic Zero Gravity With Magnets

University of Nottingham scientists have been levitating fruit flies with magnets to determine how biological organisms are affected by weightless conditions in space.

The team has shown that simulating weightlessness in fruit flies on Earth by using magnets causes the flies to walk more quickly, which is a similar finding astronauts have had in experiments on the International Space Station.

“It is unfeasible to apply this technique to investigating the effects of weightlessness on a human being directly: no magnet exists that can do this," Dr Richard Hill, an EPSRC research fellow in the University´s School of Physics and Astronomy, said in a press release. "However, by studying the effects on ℠model´ organisms such as the fruit fly, we can hope to obtain information about the effects of weightlessness on particular biological mechanisms."

He said it will be crucial to understand the effects of weightlessness on all living organisms for future space endeavors.

Scientists used a superconducting magnet to produce a strong magnetic field of around 16 Tesla, which is about 350,000 times stronger than the strength of the Earth's field.

Inside the superconducting solenoid magnet, the diamagnetic repulsive force on the flies is large enough to balance the force of gravity so they can levitate without any support.

The scientists have to be cautious when using a strong magnetic field because it can have effects on living organisms.  They were able to control these effects by examining how the flies behaved in different parts of the magnet.

“What we showed was that the flies in the magnet behaved in the same way that they behave in space," Hill said in a press release. "They walk more quickly. Why they do this, we really don´t know yet. It may be because the flies just find moving around in weightlessness easier on their joints and muscles, or it could be that it´s some kind of response to their confusion about which way is up and down when gravity is absent.”

Diamagnetic levitation does not balance gravity as perfectly as having "real" weightlessness, but it can be used to see which experiments are suitable and interesting to perform in space before spending money on a space launch.

The work was published in the Royal Society journal Interface.


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