Anti-gravity in a bottle - sort of

It may not be the science-fictional anti-gravity inertial dampers used in Star Trek films to keep crew members from floating around the U.S.S. Enterprise, but NASA scientists have created a kind of anti-gravitywell, more like low gravityinside a small magnetic bottle right here on Earth. According to Sharon Cobb of NASA, Scientists from the Space Sciences Laboratory at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center first generated magnetic fields 100,000 times Earth's own magnetic field to observe how gravityand the lack of itaffects the growth of silicon and germanium back in 1996. According to Sharon Cobb of NASA, Crystals are grown by melting a rod of silicon or germanium, both important materials in the manufacturing of computer components, and then cooled under carefully controlled conditions. Cobb said that even in the artificial confines of a laboratory, researchers could not prevent imperfections and impurities within the final crystal. However, one way around the problem is to grow the crystals in near-zero-g; that ability was always impossible on Earth until the 1990s. Earthbound experiments have resulted in a significant improvement in the quality of crystals that could be grown. The crystals could be grown either in space aboard the space station or here on Earth (at greater expense) in a magnetic bottle that counteracts Earths gravity. Using magnetic fields in the laboratory, crystals have been grown under desirable conditions that could only otherwise be obtained in space, Cobb said. (However, crystal-growing costs and difficulty-of-production are the main restraints.) Magnetic fields are limited in many ways as a simulator of reduced gravity one of which being the size of crystals that can be grown. The combination of a low-gravity and magnetic fields helps counteract the crystal-size limitations, Cobb noted. So NASA scientists are now working on a furnace to be flown aboard the International Space Station. The furnace will incorporate the features of a low-Earth orbit microgravity environment and a powerful artificial magnetic field. On Earth, NASA's magnetic bottle may have other yet-imagined uses but it's still a long, long way before humans can create true anti-gravity on terra firma. What's in the Sky: On Sept. 14 look for the Harvest Moon rising in Vermonts sky. It is the full Moon closest to the fall equinox. Lou Varricchio, M.Sc., was a NASA science writer. He is currently the NASA/JPL solar system ambassador in Vermont.

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