Weightlessness in Orbit

Astronauts who are orbiting the Earth often experience sensations of weightlessness. These sensations experienced by orbiting astronauts are the same sensations experienced by anyone who has been temporarily suspended above the seat on an amusement park ride. Not only are the sensations the same (for astronauts and roller coaster riders), but the causes of those sensations of weightlessness are also the same.

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Contact versus Non-Contact Forces

Before understanding weightlessness, we will have to review two categories of forces - contact forces and action-at-a-distance forces. As you sit in a chair, you experience two forces - the force of the Earth's gravitational field pulling you downward toward the Earth and the force of the chair pushing you upward. The upward chair force is sometimes referred to as a normal force and results from the contact between the chair top and your bottom end. This normal force is categorized as a contact force. Contact forces can only result from the actual touching of the two interacting objects - in this case, the chair and you. The force of gravity acting upon your body is not a contact force; it is often categorized as an action-at-a-distance force. The force of gravity is the result of your center of mass and the Earth's center of mass exerting a mutual pull on each other; this force would even exist if you were not in contact with the Earth. The force of gravity does not require that the two interacting objects (your body and the Earth) make physical contact; it can act over a distance through space. Since the force of gravity is not a contact force, it cannot be felt through contact. You can never feel the force of gravity pulling upon your body in the same way that you would feel a contact force. If you slide across the asphalt tennis court (not recommended), you would feel the force of friction (a contact force). If you are pushed by a bully in the hallway, you would feel the applied force (a contact force). If you swung from a rope in gym class, you would feel the tension force (a contact force). If you sit in your chair, you feel the normal force (a contact force). But if you are jumping on a trampoline, even while moving through the air, you do not feel the Earth pulling upon you with a force of gravity (an action-at-a-distance force). The force of gravity can never be felt. Yet those forces that result from contact can be felt. And in the case of sitting in your chair, you can feel the chair force; and it is this force that provides you with a sensation of weight. Since the upward normal force would equal the downward force of gravity when at rest, the strength of this normal force gives one a measure of the amount of gravitational pull. If there were no upward normal force acting upon your body, you would not have any sensation of your weight.

Meaning and Cause of Weightlessness

Weightlessness is simply a sensation experienced by an individual when there are no external objects touching one's body and exerting a push or pull upon it. Weightless sensations exist when all contact forces are removed. These sensations are common to any situation in which you are momentarily (or perpetually) in a state of free fall. When in free fall, the only force acting upon your body is the force of gravity - a non-contact force. Since the force of gravity cannot be felt without any other opposing forces, you would have no sensation of it. You would feel weightless when in a state of free fall.

These feelings of weightlessness are common at amusement parks for riders of roller coasters. If you were lifted in your chair to the top of a very high tower and then your chair was suddenly dropped. As you and your chair fall towards the ground, you both accelerate at the same rate - g. Since the chair is unstable, falling at the same rate as you, it is unable to push upon you. Normal forces only result from contact with stable, supporting surfaces. The force of gravity is the only force acting upon your body. There are no external objects touching your body and exerting a force. As such, you would experience a weightless sensation. You would weigh as much as you always do (or as little) yet you would not have any sensation of this weight.

Weightlessness is only a sensation; it is not a reality corresponding to an individual who has lost weight. As you are free falling on a roller coaster ride (or other amusement park ride), you have not momentarily lost your weight. Weightlessness has very little to do with weight and mostly to do with the presence or absence of contact forces.

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Created with images by PIRO4D - "astronomy forward space travel"