Gravity Probe B


EEven before the assembly of the gravity probe, the research that has gone into it has spawned 59 doctoral dissertations, 20 master's degrees and six undergraduate engineering degrees at nine different universities. At Stanford alone, the project has drawn on the talents of students from 11 departments; 49 students are currently involved.

"There are a whole series of research projects where we are pressing the state of the art that are absolute naturals for students," says Parkinson, who is also a co-principal investigator on the project. "We have it all the way from students who have worked on theoretical physics issues to engineering problems like the construction of micro-thrusters."

So far, the relativity mission has spurred new technology ranging from significant improvements in spacecraft construction to an ingenious application of the Global Positioning System satellite navigation network to low-cost, automated landing systems for commercial airliners. Researchers expect to tease other side benefits from the probe in orbit, such as a geodetic map of Earth 100 times more accurate than any available today.

But it is the prospect of a new insight into the structure of Einstein's universe that galvanized the attention of the physics community.

"If Gravity Probe B flies, it will be a landmark in explaining something so fundamental," says Caltech physicist Kip Thorne, author of Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy. "It will go down in the textbooks. I can see it forcing us back to the drawing boards. I think it is unlikely, but I by no means rule it out." And many scientific experts concur that much is riding on the outcome. "If they turn out to show [Einstein's] theory wrong, there will be an enormous impact on the whole foundation of physics," says Thorne.

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