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In this video from NASA's Teaching From Space initiative, two astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) describe mass and weight and the differences between the two. Embedded animations and demonstrations support the video's learning goals.
This media asset is from the Mass vs. Weight series produced by the Teaching From Space Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center.
Classroom Activity: Weight Weight Don’t Tell Me
Materials needed: Paper and pens/pencils
Students work in small groups to diagram the relative weight of an object as it moves away from Earth. Students compare an object’s (astronaut, for example) theoretical weight at the space station’s orbital altitude with observable weight on board the actual station – to derive and understand the conditions that create weightlessness on the space station.
In normal conversation, when we use the word “massive” we’re usually referring to how big something is. Scientifically speaking, though, “mass” isn’t related to size (or volume). Mass is related to how much an object resists changes to its state of motion. Though it’s true that, for a given density, more volume will mean more mass, some objects can be “small” - in the sense that they don’t take up a lot of volume - yet still have a lot of mass. (One example would be the dense material that makes up a neutron star.) Conversely, large objects can have low mass. Think about a mountain of granite versus a mountain of cotton candy. Both might have the same volume, but they have different masses. (And one tastes better, too.) An object with more mass requires more effort – more force - to get moving from a state of rest, or to stop once it’s in motion. That quality of being easy or hard to set in motion or bring to a stop is “inertia.” An object’s “inertial mass” is its resistance to being accelerated (or decelerated) by a force.
All masses near Planet Earth feel a gravitational force proportional to their mass: the bigger the mass, the bigger the gravitational force. The equation for gravitational force is: FG = Mass x Gravity = mg. The value of “g” (the strength of the gravitational field) is unique to each planet. While g here on Earth may be ~10 m/s2, on Jupiter, g ~25 m/s2 and on the Moon, g is only ~ 1.6 m/s2. And since the value of g changes based on the gravitational field strength, the gravitational force also changes. Neither an object’s state of motion nor its specific location impacts gravitational force. What matters is the value of g.
Gravitational force is associated with acceleration in the direction of that force. Simply put, an object subject to a gravitation force will “fall” in the same direction in which the force is acting. The force it takes to counteract and balance out that falling is the object’s “weight.” Unlike mass and unlike gravitational force, weight will change based on whether there are forces acting that increase or reduce the “upward” force necessary to balance out the “downward” gravitational force; for instance the buoyant force that helps an object float in water, making it weightless.
Another example of an object’s weight changing is due to it’s acceleration relative to the gravitational field. If an object is pushed upwards so that it accelerates up, it’s weight on the surface pushing it up will increase. Alternatively, if the object is allowed to fall, it’s weight will be reduced. For example, when you’re in an elevator, going over the top of a steep bump in your car or riding a roller coaster, your weight changes because you are experiencing an upward or downward acceleration, so your weight does not completely offset the gravitational force. In each scenario, your weight is the net force required to counteract the downward force such that you experience a certain acceleration, and that value can change even though the gravitational force remains the same.
When astronauts are in the space station, their mass is the same as it is on Earth. The gravitational force on the space station - contrary to what many people think – is only slightly less than the gravitational force on Earth. The space station, and everything in it, is subject to Earth’s gravity. Indeed, that’s what keeps it in orbit. However, since the station and everything on it moves together around Earth, the space station and its contents are constantly falling towards Earth; they are in free fall. They never fall to Earth, since the curvature of Earth exactly matches the shape of the orbit, but they are constantly falling, nonetheless. The station and its contents are weightless since no force is exerted to counterbalance the gravitational force. Based on what it means for something to have weight, this explains why – despite having mass and despite being subject to a gravitational force – the astronauts are weightless. The condition of weightlessness on board the space station allows astronauts to conduct experiments and demonstrations that would be impossible to do on Earth.
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