In the early 1900s, Albert Einstein postulated a theory of gravitation he called Relativity. In it, he said a bunch of seemingly crazy things about light bending, objects with mass dragging space and time along with them, and how the universe is hurtling away from itself--an expansion occurring at the speed of light. According to NASA, another facet of his theory has now been verified.
Gravity Probe B has returned from its seven year adventure in orbit, and it has brought some rather mind-blowing news: A space-time vortex exists around the Earth, just like Einstein theorized. A culmination of 47 years of scientific research, Gravity Probe B has not disappointed us in this discovery; NASA is calling it nothing short of “epic”.
In order to test Einstein’s theory, scientists sent a spinning gyroscope to orbit around the Earth. Space and time are melded together into something like a four-dimensional quilt (don't try making one at home), aptly called space-time. The Earth applies weight to this quilt, causing an indentation “much like a heavy person sitting in the middle of a trampoline.” Gravity, then, is the path an object takes following the curve of that indentation.
Einstein theorized that the Earth’s rotation then causes that indentation to twist into a four dimensional swirl. With the axis of the gyroscope’s spin pointed at a fixed object (like a star), the Theory of Relativity indicates that without that swirl (or its “frame-dragging effect”) it would remain that way indefinitely, but with it the axis should drift out of alignment over time. The Gravity Probe B showed that Einstein was right, as the axis did in fact stray.
NASA didn’t just use one gyroscope; they used four, and they needed to be nearly perfect spheres in order to minimize any wobbling. NASA says these were the most perfect made to-date, never varying from a perfect sphere by more than 40 atomic layers.
The experiment resulted in calculations exactly as Einstein predicted. The Gravity Probe B Mission will go down in history as one of the greatest physics experiments of all time. Clifford Will, who chairs an independent panel of the National Research Council tasked with monitoring and reviewing the results of the Gravity Probe B Mission said, “this will be written up in textbooks as one of the classic experiments in the history of physics."
As if proving one of Einstein’s theories wasn’t enough, it’s interesting to note that this study was taken up by hundreds of young scientists across the US, including some high school students. It’s exciting to see such involvement in the next generation of great minds. It speaks volumes for impressive things still to come from science!
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