How did they do it? Working on behalf of NASA, the researchers built a device to simulate variable levels of gravity. The device harbors a superconducting magnet that generates a field powerful enough to levitate the water inside living animals.
Previously, other researchers were able to levitate live frogs and grasshoppers. Mice, mammals biologically closer to humans, could help scientists in counteracting bone loss, which occurs from reduced gravity over a long period of time — such as in deep space or on the moon.
The effort is part of a NASA investigation into how the human body can cope with long-term low gravity situations — such as during long stints on the International Space Station or on future trips to the moon or beyond.
Repeated levitation tests showed the mice, even when not sedated, could quickly acclimate (moving, eating, drinking) to levitation inside the cage after three or four hours.
The strong magnetic fields did not appear to have negative impact on the mice, at least in the short term.
“We’re trying to see what kind of physiological impact is due to prolonged microgravity, and also what kind of countermeasures might work against it for astronauts,” Liu said. “If we can contribute to the future human exploration of space, that would be very exciting.” They are now applying for funding for such research with their levitator.
How does the levitation work, by the way? Applying a strong magnetic field that opposes gravity repels the water in animals’ bodies — levitating them slightly.