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Space juggling and dance could make suborbital flights more fun

 A "space juggler" plans to release a film the week of Nov. 7 about the joys and challenges of doing performance art in zero gravity.

Adam Dipert is a nuclear physicist, professional circus performer and dancer who first stumbled upon microgravity movements after helping to purchase a parabolic flight for a friend's 40th birthday. Dipert became fascinated with how the human body moves during such flights, which switch quickly between microgravity, Earth gravity and multiple "Gs" (multiples of Earth gravity) across 15 or 30 parabolas.

His film, "Dreaming of Space Juggling", will be released on the Space Juggler website sometime in early November – watch that site and associated social feeds for the exact date. Dipert also plans a series of educational videos around the week of Nov. 21, focusing on matters such as how a parabolic flight works, and making demonstrations with physical objects. 

Dance, Dipert told Space.com, has been poorly studied in microgravity environments; that said, in May he published a paper on microgravity choreographic techniques in Acta Astronautica citing the peer-reviewed research that was available. Certainly astronauts have done zero gravity sports for fun – most recently during a mini-Olympics on the International Space Station, and also with a mini-soccer ball in 2018 in celebration of the FIFA World Cup. 

Related: Do space tourists really understand the risk they're taking? 

 While the language of mathematics can describe these graceful movements in microgravity, Dipert said, dancers also have a vocabulary to present it to the world.

"I would really love to see the space community understand that: There's a deep research going on in dance, especially academic forms of dance, and there are people who already know how to express this stuff," he told Space.com. In the meantime, Dipert says he wants to build a bridge between microgravity dance and math as part of a larger educational fusion under STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.) 

As an experimental nuclear physicist who works at Triangle Universities Nuclear Laboratory with North Carolina State University, Dipert is interested in studying the magnetic "moment" – which describes the strength and orientation of a magnetic field – of helium-3 (an isotope or type of helium available on the lunar surface, for example). Dipert noted it wouldn't be quite appropriate to draw a relation between his physics research and his space juggling "persona", but some of the concepts are similar – such as thinking about how an atom operates in a particular reference frame.

Dipert has been on three parabolic flights and in between, he experiments with ideas using pools, float tanks, indoor skydiving wind tunnels and an aerial harness he devised. He also solicited the expertise of fellow dancers, including French choreographer and dancer Kitsou Dubois.

Adam Dipert space juggler

"Space juggler" Adam Dipert (right) and holistic therapist Toni Craige (foreground left) during a parabolic flight. Credit: G-Force One, Zero G Corp. (Image credit: Adam Dipert)

 "That was the physical practice," Dipert said of the flight experiences and simulations, "but then also, I like programming computers and I like doing the math. I have made some models of the human body – fully articulated realistic centers of masses and joints and everything – so that I can calculate the phenomenon of the body, to understand the dynamics of rotation."

Dipert said one of the chief challenges he encountered was trying to predict where to throw the ball while juggling in simulated microgravity (whether it was in a parabolic flight, or in his aerial rig). For example, he sometimes threw the ball at his feet rather than at his hands. He's been experimenting with cameras and modeling to learn more about possible microgravity maneuvers, such as the Archimedean spiral – a geometry term that (simply put) discusses moving points on a curve.

Dipert likened the challenges of dancing or juggling in microgravity to trying to figure out how to operate a spacecraft on a small body, like an asteroid or comet. Small space bodies have low gravities, making it challenging to perform activities like landing; the unexpected bouncing of the European Space Agency's Philae lander on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in 2014 is just one example.

"If you have an asteroid in an unstable rotation, then it's going to be really hard to land on it," Dipert said. "They [asteroids] can be very unstable; they can be super wobbly. As physical movement artists, we also need to understand how those axes work on our bodies. But the thing that's different about us and an asteroid is that we can move our arms and legs around [for] control." 

One unexpected benefit was when Dipert found himself experiencing a "style of mental transformation" as he learned more about microgravity movements of the human body. He said that on Earth, gravity has such a profound influence on how humans think and move that upon becoming free of gravity, your consciousness alters profoundly.

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 More practically, dance could be a way of getting people to have deeper experiences on parabolic flights (or even space tourism suborbital flights, as those become available) instead of just floating, Dipert suggested. He said that during his parabolic flights, people would often become disoriented because their limbs were pointing in different directions than usual; dance gives direction. 

"Dance is going to make all forms of space tourism more accessible to more people who otherwise would be experiencing disorientation, because of a lack of focus," he said.

While you're waiting for the film, you can check out a playlist of Dipert's space juggling on YouTube. 

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.