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Scientists Build Gigantic Air Hockey Table to Replicate Zero-Gravity

Written by on Friday, August 10th, 2012

Science, the source of every single piece of military hardware that has ever been invented, relies heavily on experimentation. Science without experimentation is like music without sound. You can have a great idea, but unless you have some way of actually translating it into the physical world to see how well it performs then it’s practically useless.

Normally, performing experiments isn’t that big of a deal. You just go to the lab, fill beakers up with glowing liquid, turn on the Bunsen burner, and do other sciencey things. Things are way more complicated when you’re talking about space. Zero gravity and the mere cost of getting your gear into orbit can make some experiments impossible.

For example, just yesterday I talked about DARPA’s plan to raise old satellites from the dead by cannibalizing them for parts. Before they can do that, they’re planning on spending millions of dollars on a space test to see if the whole idea is even possible. It’s a shame that scientists can’t just go into their backyard and test out orbital satellite assembly.

Or can they? DARPA has built an Earth-bound satellite docking test system that can only be described as a gigantic, upside-down air hockey table.

You’ve played air hockey, right? It’s a table with a bunch of little holes punched in it. Air continuously shoots up out of the holes to create a near-frictionless surface. It’s the exact same idea here, just on a much larger buy valium no rx scale and with a much bigger budget.

Researchers at the US Naval Research Laboratory Spacecraft Engineering Department (NRESED) have built the world’s first and only Gravity Offset Table (GOT), a device that’s less like an air hockey table and more like an air hockey rink. The massive table spans a 20-foot by 15-foot by 1.5-foot area and is made entirely out of a perfectly flat, 75,000 lb. granite slab that was cut specifically for this purpose.

But the granite is just the table — the playing area, if you will. NRESED scientists simulate zero gravity environments by using air bearings, which are powerful jets that exert enough downward force to create a levitation effect. The million-dollar satellite parts will glide across the granite slab with less friction than wet ice across wet ice.

This should allow scientists to replicate the effects of frictionless docking procedures in the weightlessness of space. As neat as this thing is, it can’t be used as a panacea for every space experiment. It should do an excellent job of testing out DARPA’s new autonomous docking system, but the satellite zombie scientists will have to look elsewhere.

Hopefully, DARPA and other branches of the government will be able to reuse GOT as a way to save tax dollars by cheaply experimenting with zero-gravity, frinctionless environments. At the very least, they could open it up to the public on the weekends to host some truly amazing life-size air hockey matches.

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