When an astronaut is orbiting the earth, he isn't really weightless. The earth's gravity is still pulling him toward the center of the earth and his weight is almost as large as it would be on the earth's surface. What makes him feel weightless is the fact that he is in free fall all the time! He is falling just as he would be if he had jumped off a diving board or a cliff. If it weren't for the astronaut's enormous sideways velocity, he would plunge toward the earth faster and faster and soon crash into the earth's surface. But his sideways velocity carries him past the horizon so fast that he keeps missing the earth as he falls. Instead of crashing into the earth, he orbits it.
During his orbit, the astronaut feels weightless because all of his "pieces" are falling together. Those pieces don't need to push on one another to keep their relative positions as they fall, so he feels none of the internal forces that he interprets as weight when he stands on the ground. A falling astronaut can't feel his weight.
To prepare for this weightless feeling, the astronaut needs to fall. Jumping off a diving board or riding a roller coaster will help, but the classic training technique is a ride on the "Vomit Comet"—an airplane that follows a parabolic arc through the air that allows everything inside it to fall freely. The airplane's arc is just that of a freely falling object and everything inside it floats around in free fall, too—including the astronaut trainee. The plane starts the arc heading upward. It slows its rise until it reaches a peak height and then continues arcing downward faster and faster. The whole trip lasts at most 20 seconds, during which everyone inside the plane feels weightless.
Whenever you accelerate, you experience a gravity-like sensation in the direction opposite that acceleration. Thus when you accelerate to the left, you feel as though gravity were pulling you not only downward, but also to the right. The rightward "pull" isn't a true force; it's just the result of your own inertia trying to prevent you from accelerating. The amount of that rightward "pull" depends on how quickly you accelerate to the left. If you accelerate to the left at 9.8 meters/second2, an acceleration equal in amount to what you would experience if you were falling freely in the earth's gravity, the rightward gravity-like sensation you feel is just as strong as the downward gravity sensation you would feel when you are standing still. You are experiencing a rightward "fictitious force" of 1 g. The g-force you experience whenever you accelerate is equal in amount to your acceleration divided by the acceleration due to gravity (9.8 meters/second2) and points in the direction opposite your acceleration. Often the true downward force of gravity is added to this figure, so that you start with 1 g in the downward direction when you're not accelerating and continue from there. If you are on a roller coaster that is accelerating you upward at 19.6 meters/second2, then your total experience is 3 g's in the downward direction (1 g from gravity itself and 2 g's from the upward acceleration). And if you are accelerating downward at 9.8 meters/second2, then your total experience is 0 g's (1 g downward for gravity and 1 g upward from the downward acceleration). In this last case, you feel weightless-the weightlessness of a freely falling object such as an astronaut, skydiver, or high jumper.
Note added: A reader pointed out that I never actually answered the question. He's right! So here is the answer: they use accelerometers. An accelerometer is essentially a test mass on a force sensor. When there is no acceleration, the test mass only needs to be supported against the pull of gravity (i.e., the test mass's weight), so the force sensor reports that it is pushing up on the test mass with a force equal to the test mass's weight. But once the accelerometer begins to accelerate, the test mass needs an additional force in order to accelerate with the accelerometer. The force sensor detects this additional force and reports it. If you carry an accelerometer with you on a roller coaster, it will report the force it exerts on the test mass at each moment during the trip. A recording device can thus follow the "g-forces" throughout the ride.
As far as how accelerometers work, modern ones are generally based on tiny mechanical systems known as MEMS (Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems). Their test masses are associated with microscopic spring systems and the complete accelerometer sensor resides on a single chip.
While "centrifugal force" is something we all seem to experience, it truly is a fictitious force. By a fictitious force, I mean that it is a side effect of acceleration and not a cause of acceleration.
There is no true outward force acting on an object that's revolving around a center. Instead, that object's own inertia is trying to make it travel in a straight-line path that would cause it to drift farther and farther away from the center. The one true force acting on the revolving object is an inward one-a centripetal force. The object is trying to go straight and the centripetal force is pulling it inward and bending the object's path into a circle.
To get a feel for the experiences associated with this sort of motion, let's first imagine that you are the revolving object and that you're swinging around in a circle at the end of a rope. In that case, your inertia is trying to send you in a straight-line path and the rope is pulling you inward and deflecting your motion so that you go in a circle. If you are holding the rope with your hands, you'll feel the tension in the rope as the rope pulls on you. (Note that, in accordance with Newton's third law of motion, you pull back on the rope just as hard as it pulls on you.) The rope's force makes you accelerate inward and you feel all the mass in your body resisting this inward acceleration. As the rope's force is conveyed throughout your body via your muscles and bones, you feel your body resisting this inward acceleration. There's no actual outward force on you; it's just your inertia fighting the inward acceleration. You'd feel the same experience if you were being yanked forward by a rope-there would be no real backward force acting on you yet you'd feel your inertia fighting the forward acceleration.
Now let's imagine that you are exerting the inward force on an object and that that object is a heavy bucket of water that's swinging around in a circle. The water's inertia is trying to make it travel in a straight line and you're pulling inward on it to bend its path into a circle. The force you exert on the bucket is quite real and it causes the bucket to accelerate inward, rather than traveling straight ahead. Since you're exerting an inward force on the bucket, the bucket must exert an inward force on you (Newton's third law again). It pulls outward on your arm. But there isn't anything pulling outward on the bucket, no mysterious "centrifugal force." Instead, the bucket accelerates in response to an unbalance force on it: you pull it inward and nothing pulls it outward, so it accelerates inward. In the process, the bucket exerts only one force on its surroundings: an outward force on your arm.
As for the operation of a centrifuge, it works by swinging its contents around in a circle and using their inertias to make them separate. The various items in the centrifuge have different densities and other characteristics that affect their paths as they revolve around the center of the centrifuge. Inertia tends to make each item go straight while the centrifuge makes them bend inward. The forces causing this inward bending have to be conveyed from the centrifuge through its contents and there's a tendency for the denser items in the centrifuge to travel straighter than the less dense items. As a result, the denser items are found near the outside of the circular path while the less dense ones are found near the center of that path.
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