Sciency Words: Hypogravity

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words.  Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:

HYPOGRAVITY

We have a pretty good idea how the human body operates in Earth-normal gravity (1 g).  We also know a lot about how weightlessness (0 g) affects our bodies. But what about values of gravity between 0 and 1 g?  According to this review from the journal Frontiers in Physiology, our knowledge about the human body in so-called hypogravity is shockingly limited.

The word hypogravity combines the word gravity with the prefix hypo-, which comes from a Greek word meaning “under” or “below.”  It’s defined as an actual or perceived gravitational force greater than 0 g but less than 1 g.  The term hypergravity (from a Greek word meaning “over” or “above”) is also used for gravitational forces greater than 1 g.

According to Google ngrams, the term started appearing in print during the 1950’s, which would coincide with the early days of the space program.  My first encounter with this term was in an article titled “Medical Skills for an Interplanetary Trip: The Hostile Environment of Space and the Planet Mars,” which appears in this book about the Mars One program.

I can’t remember ever seeing this term prior to that article, which kind of surprised me at first.  But based on my subsequent research, I think this term is used almost exclusively in the medical field, an area which I’m not well versed in.

According to that paper from Frontiers in Physiology, we know very little about what hypogravity does to us, medically speaking.  Of course we do have the first hand accounts of those few astronauts who’ve walked on the Moon, as well as other records and archival footage from the Apollo program.  Frontiers in Physiology also describes several ingenious ways scientists have learned to simulate hypogravity in the laboratory.  And we have mathematical models to help us predict what hypogravity might do to us long term.

But still, our knowledge and experience with hypogravity “remains fragmentary,” as Frontiers in Physiology puts it.  “Fragmentary” seems like just the right word, because old records, laboratory simulations, and computer models can only tell us so much.  We have very little to go on here.  Just bits and pieces. A few scattered data points.

The human body evolved in a 1 g environment.  Prolonged weightlessness seems to do our bodies a lot of harm, from bone loss and muscle atrophy, to disrupting the balance of our internal fluids, to messing up our equilibrioception (a “sixth sense” most of us don’t realize we have until it’s taken away).  I’d assume hypogravity does less harm than weightlessness.  The question is: how much less?

I guess we won’t really know the answer until we start sending people to live on the Moon or Mars long term, and start finding out which health problems they do or do not develop.

8 Responses to Sciency Words: Hypogravity

  1. ProfTomBot says:

    The extrapolation would be: how does evolution adjust for hypogravity? Imagine that the health effects of a Mars colonist are of low morbidity and mortality such that reproduction of humans is sustainable. Upon how many iterations would genotypic changes be evident and how different would the resulting phenotypes be? Ad infinitum would these environmental changes equate to humanoid aliens?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. From what I’ve read, the designs for achieving artificial gravity by centripetal force, spinning ships or tethering habitats to counter-weights, would realistically only achieve some portion of Earth gravity, such as maybe 0.3g, in other words, hypogravity. Those designs seem to be banking on us getting most of the health benefits of gravity from hypogravity.

    The problem is that testing would be expensive. Of course, artificial gravity overall would be expensive, which is probably why not much has been done toward it. As far as I know, the only actual tests in space were on the Gemini 11 mission, and that was extremely limited.

    We probably won’t know much about the medical effects of hypogravity until the first long term base exists on either the moon or Mars.

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      Yeah, that’s my understanding as well: that rotating spacecraft or space stations would only achieve 0.3 g or so. Trying to recreate Earth-like gravity would require an absurdly large structure, far beyond what we can realistically build at the moment.

      Didn’t know about the Gemini 11 experiment. I’ll have to look into that!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh wow, really interesting. Especially about it messing with our sixth sense and the potential impact it would caused if we made a move to another planet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      Yeah, and it’s surprising how little we know about it at this point. We won’t really know how much of a problem this for people on the Moon or Mars until we’ve already put people there. It’s kind of a gamble.

      Liked by 1 person

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