With the development of technology, we are now at a point in history where there is an abundance of video footages taken in space. Thanks to this, the general population can visualise the strange phenomenon that is the lack of gravity in space. We are able to see videos of objects and astronauts gently floating and even strange phenomena such as tears simply pooling around a person’s eyes rather than streaming down the face. Most of these scenes are from places such as the International Space Station which is in orbit around the Earth, as there has been no expeditions leaving Earth’s orbit since the last moon landing in 1972.
However, the common misconception is that objects in space stations are in zero gravity conditions. Objects in orbit are still under the influence of Earth’s gravity, which is why they do not fling out into the depths of space. So why do astronauts in space stations look like they are not under the influence of gravity? The reason is that an object in orbit is travelling incredibly fast.
The International Space Station is about 420km above the surface of the Earth. Here, it experiences about 90% of Earth’s surface gravity, meaning that theoretically, it should fall straight back. However, the ISS is travelling at 8km/s (27600km/h) sideways at the same time – the orbital speed. Because of this, the ISS is falling back to Earth at the same rate as it is travelling tangentially away from Earth. This makes it travel at a blistering speed in a circle around the Earth.
Not only is the ISS free-falling around the Earth, but so is its contents. Therefore, the astronauts inside look like they are in zero gravity, but are in fact simply in free-fall, much like a skydiver. In this state, they experience no “weight” as the g-force becomes zero and the astronauts accelerate at the same rate as the ISS. Ergo, the astronauts are “weightless”, not in “zero gravity”. This condition can be simulated on Earth in the so-called “Vomit Comet” – an airplane designed to fly up and down along a certain path, to produce a weightless, free-fall when it falls.