How would a fidget spinner spin in space?
To boldly go where no fidget spinner has gone before.
Space. It’s the final frontier.
We all know that NASA and other space agencies around the world want us to boldly adventure into the solar system, and send people and robotic explorers deep into our cosmic neighborhood.
But what about fidget spinners?
The Earthly fad — popular among teens and adults alike — hasn’t made it to space yet, but if it did and astronauts started twirling their fidget spinners with reckless abandon, what exactly would that be like?
Would these fidget spinners just spin forever and ever in weightlessness?
The quick answer is: probably not.
But to fully answer this question for the ages, we need to get specific and determine exactly where these spinners are.
If the fidget spinners were used somewhere built for humans, like the International Space Station (ISS), then the answer is somewhat easy: The fidget spinners would work very similarly to those spun on Earth.
"A spinner on ISS would still be subject to friction and air resistance which would still cause it to stop spinning," NASA spokesman Dan Huot said via email.
Basically, fidget spinners work thanks to nifty low-friction ball bearings that allow the outer mechanism to just spin and spin around its central axis.
Even on the Space Station, the (albeit low) friction and air pressure would still slow the spinner down to eventually stop it.
Now, once you take the spinner outside into the vacuum of space, things get a little more interesting.
If an astronaut were to spin the fidget spinner on its axis, it would probably spin for a bit longer than it would on the Space Station if only because of the lack of air pressure.
But even so, eventually the spinner would stop because of friction — or the ball bearing falling apart, whichever comes first.
If that astronaut managed to get the entire spinner twirling around — not just on its axis, but the whole device — then it would basically spin forever.
"If it’s in vacuum and it doesn’t hit anything, then it should spin for a very, very long time," theoretical physicist Robert McNees said. "Though, even then, there are things that (over interminably long timescales) will cause it to slow down."
The funny thing is, low-friction has actually been a useful part of a NASA mission in the past, according to Columbia University astrophysicist Summer Ash.
Gravity Probe B "had four gyros that were set spinning in as frictionless a setting as possible," Ash said in a text message.
That mission was designed to test parts of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity by seeing just how much the fabric of space and time is warped by Earth and its movements in orbit.
"The gyros were [the] size of ping pong balls and so smooth [that] if they were blown up to Earth size, [the] tallest mountain/bump would only be 6 feet high," Ash added. So yeah, that’s some low friction.
This whole fidget spinning in space utopia may not be all that far off.
According to Huot, NASA may actually be sending a spinner or two up to the Space Station in the not too distant future.
"We might have some on station later this year for some educational demos so stay tuned," Huot said.
Oh we will, Dan. We will.