This post is a continuation of an earlier post.
Space isn't remote at all. It's only an hour's drive away if your car could go straight upwards.So somehow, people always use the term "zero gravity" to describe space as though it somehow escaped Earth's gravitational pull and is effectively receiving no attraction from the gigantic rock at all. You see terms like "there's no gravity in space" all over the place, spoken even by the astronauts themselves.Fred Hoyle
For example, let's look at a snippet from a supposedly educational article in The Star:
Half of all astronauts suffer space motion sickness when they encounter microgravity and feel as if they are falling. This affects our neurovestibular system, which is what helps our body keep proper orientation while on Earth. This feeling is not dissimilar to the sensation felt after you have been on a terrifying roller-coaster ride. It simply means that your body doesn’t know which way is up, down, left or right.This paragraph is misleading.
When the astronauts encounter microgravity (a term used erroneously in the context of "zero gravity"), they don't only feel "as if they are falling" - they ARE actually falling. The astronauts feel weightless because the International Space Station is in an orbit around the Earth, and an orbit is a free-fall. And you feel weightless when you are free-falling.
I am not a textbook author, so I might not be good at explaining it. But here is a great explanation I found through a fabulous web page (which by the way, clarifies a lot of scientific misconceptions I blogged about some time in the past):
Everyone knows that the gravity in outer space is zero. Everyone is wrong.So there we have it: Astronauts are not floating in zero gravity, they are constantly falling under the gravitational force. They feel just like a bungee jumper, a skydiver, or a person in a roller coaster going down a gigantic drop.
Gravity in space is not zero, it can actually be fairly strong. Suppose you climbed to the top of a ladder that's about 300 miles tall. You would be up in the vacuum of space, but you would not be weightless at all. You'd only weigh about fifteen percent less than you do on the ground. While 300 miles out in space, a 115lb person would weigh about 100lb. Yet a spacecraft can orbit 'weightlessly' at the height of your ladder! While you're up there, you might see the Space Shuttle zip right by you. The people inside it would seem as weightless as always. Yet on your tall ladder, you'd feel nearly normal weight. What's going on?
The reason that the shuttle astronauts act weightless is that they're inside a container which is FALLING! If the shuttle were to sit unmoving on top of your ladder (it's a strong ladder,) the shuttle would no longer be falling, and its occupants would feel nearly normal weight. And if you were to leap from your ladder, you would feel just as weightless as an astronaut (at least you'd feel weightless until you hit the ground!)
So, if the orbiting shuttle is really falling, why doesn't it hit the earth? It's because the shuttle is not only falling down, it is moving very fast sideways as it falls, so it falls in a curve. It moves so fast that the curved path of its fall is the same as the curve of the earth, so the Shuttle falls and falls and never comes down. Gravity strongly affects the astronauts in a spacecraft: the Earth is strongly pulling on them so they fall towards it. But they are moving sideways so fast that they continually miss the Earth. This process is called "orbiting," and the proper word for the seeming lack of gravity is called "Free Fall." You shouldn't say that astronauts are "weightless," because if you do, then anyone and anything that is falling would also be "weightless." When you jump out of an airplane, do you become weightless? And if you drop a book, does gravity stop affecting it; should you say it becomes weightless? If so, then why does it fall? If "weight" is the force which pulls objects towards the Earth, then this force is still there even when objects fall.
So, to experience GENUINE free fall just like the astronauts, simply jump into the air! Better yet, jump off a diving board at the pool, or bounce on a trampoline, or go skydiving. Bungee-jumpers know what the astronauts experience.
The concept of "zero-gravity" and freefall should be explained with the diagram on the right.
Say you are on top of a high mountain, and you throw an unfortunate guy forward with great force. If you throw him just lightly, he might land on, say, point D. If you throw him with even more velocity, he might end up landing on point E, F, or even B. But throw the poor boy with a sufficient velocity, and he will never land, as he will just keep on curving around the earth and missing the ground constantly. That is exactly what happens to a satellite in an orbit. An orbit is just a kind of freefall, on a special type of projectile motion which takes a form of an ellipse or a sphere.
[Read more about this diagram and its explanation in this Wikipedia article - Newton's Cannonball]
It might be just my personal peeve, but I have always been appalled by how little clarification is given about the term "zero gravity" in the media. When I was young, I had always thought that there is zero gravity pull in the space, and it was until quite late that I realized all the astronauts were just free-falling. And more people should learn about this misconception if we really want to educate our people about the space.