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Space Disorientation Maze

You may not have a chance to go to space yourself, but you can simulate a little of what astronauts experience during spaceflight. Work with a partner to complete this perplexing maze and experience the disorientation of astronauts. 

Balance relies on input from several areas of the body to keep you from falling — organs of your inner ear, visual inputs and inputs from the muscles and joints in your legs and spine. 

Our bodies and brains rely on gravity to tell us which way is up and which way is down, and whether we are in motion. 

Gravity pulls small bio-crystals called otoconia (sometimes called otoliths) inside our inner ear down, where they stimulate small hair-like nerve cells. These cells signal movement to our brains as the otoliths respond to the pull of gravity as we shift.

These hair-like nerve cells in the inner ear team with semi-circular canals that are responsible for sensing motion when the head is moving (dynamic equilibrium), whether up and down, tilting or side to side.

The vestibule of the inner ear holds the structures that detect horizontal and vertical motion which occurs when the head is not moving (static equilibrium), but the entire body is. For example, in an elevator or launching in a rocket ship, sensing vertical motion.

When astronauts go to space, these bio-crystals float all around their inner ears and send mixed signals to their brains. Their eyes may be telling them that they are right side up, but their bodies may feel like they are upside down. For a few days (or maybe longer, if they’re unlucky) they experience “Space Adaptation Syndrome,” a feeling of motion sickness and disorientation.

Objectives

  • Experience and discuss some of the physical challenges that astronauts face.

Materials

Key Questions

  • How does this relate to space flight?
  • What causes disorientation in astronauts?
  • How quickly did you complete the maze without the mirror? With the mirror?
  • Why was there a difference between the two methods of navigating the maze?
  • What effects do you think disorientation has on the astronaut’s work and life in space?

What To Do

  1. Work with a partner. Use a pencil to trace a path through Maze A while your partner times you using a stopwatch.
  2. Next, draw a path through Maze B by looking only at the reflection of the maze in the mirror. To do this, have your partner hold the mirror at the top of the maze, position it so you can see its reflection in the mirror and get your partner to hold their hand or a piece of paper over your drawing hand so you can’t directly see the maze. Time this attempt.
  3. Try the exercise with your head tilted to the right or left- what difference does this make to your navigation and directions?
  4. Switch roles with your partner and do the activity again.
  5. Compare the time it took to draw without the mirror and to draw with the mirror. Is there a difference? How can you explain it?

Extensions

  • Can you “adapt” to your new environment, like astronauts do? Using a mirror, try the maze several times and see if your time and accuracy improve.
  • Try another disorientation activity in partners—a pilot and a spinner. The pilot stands and looks up at the ceiling. The spinner (slowly) spins the pilot around 10 times; steps back a metre or so and stretches their arms out towards the pilot. The pilot must try to push the “emergency button” (the spinner’s fingertips). Record how many attempts it takes until the pilot is successful. Switch roles. How easy was it to “push the button” successfully?
  • What are some problems that could occur if an astronaut becomes seriously disoriented? What can be done to avoid disorientation?

Other Resources

Canadian Space Agency | Junior Astronauts
Teacher Tip:These activities are designed for youth in grades 6 to 9. They  focus on three streams—science and technology, fitness and nutrition, and communications and teamwork.

HowStuffWorks | How Weightlessness Works | How You Feel in Microgravity

eHow Education | Youtube | Where in the Ear is the Euqilibrium Detected?

NASA | What happens to the Human Body in Space?

NASA | For educators | Train like an astronaut