Working in the biggest laboratory in the universe
“The rocket goes about 250km straight up, and once it exits the atmosphere the engines are cut, then it goes into freefall for about five to 10 minutes to create an environment of microgravity,” he says.
But there is a way to go yet before those precious few experimental moments: “The rocket is planned for early 2015 – it’s a long process.”
Already, technology to help make rockets lighter has been having an effect on more everyday items, such as civilian aircraft and even wind turbines.
Reducing the mass of rockets can dial back enormously on expense, saving as much as €25,000 for every kilo lost, explains Dr Conchúr Ó Brádaigh, a senior lecturer in mechanical and biomedical engineering at NUI Galway.
He is also RD director with ÉireComposites Teo, which is working with the European Space Agency on technologies to help replace metal structures on rocket launchers with light but strong “composite” plastic materials.
Éirecomposites has been applying the fruits of the rocket-related research to manufacture parts that remain closer to Earth, such as components of wind turbines and passenger aircraft.
“The next time you are taking an Aer Lingus A320 flight in Europe, have a look at the engine as you are going up on the plane,” says Dr Ó Brádaigh. “It’s quite likely some of the parts are manufactured in Galway.”
Confined to bed - for science
In the “weightlessness” of space, strange things happen to the human body over time: fluids shift around, muscles waste away, bones become weaker, and you see metabolic effects and changes in how the body accumulates fat.
Studies are tracking what happens to astronauts when they are orbiting in conditions of microgravity or weightlessness. But it’s an expensive process to put people up there.
So on Earth, experiments are looking to recreate a lack of gravity by recruiting people on to bedrest studies. On paper it might sound like a sweet deal, but the reality is that volunteers can be confined to bed for weeks at a head-down tilt of six degrees, explains Dr Donal O’Gorman, who directs the centre for preventive medicine at Dublin City University.
Why simulate a lack of gravity on the human body? “It provides a very interesting and reversible model for what is almost like an accelerated rate of ageing,” says Dr O’Gorman.
He and PhD student Helena Kenny are working on an international study to collect and analyse data from 12 volunteers taking part in a three-week bedrest study in France.
Supported by Enterprise Ireland through ESA’s Prodex programme, they are looking at whether the lack-of-gravity model can affect how the body uses energy, what happens to the composition of muscles, and whether interventions such as physical vibration or food supplements could affect the outcome.
O’Gorman says the hope is that the findings will help to shed light on the early physiological changes of ageing and some chronic medical conditions.