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Gravity Probe B

Testing Einstein's Universe

Special & General Relativity Questions and Answers

Can gravity affect the speed of light?

Not really. The speed of light is something measured with a local apparatus in an inertial reference frame, using the same meter stick and clock. A gravitational field has zillions of such 'locally inertial reference frames' which are described by freely-falling observers for short intervals of time and small regions of space. In all of these tiny domains, an observer would measure the same velocity for light as guaranteed by special relativity. To ask what the speed of light is over a domain where gravitational forces make a reference frame 'non-inertial' and not moving at a constant speed, is an ill-defined question in special relativity. As soon as you try to measure the speed of such an impulse, you would be using a clock and a meter stick which would not be the 'proper time and space' intervals for the entire region where the gravitational field exists.

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All answers are provided by Dr. Sten Odenwald (Raytheon STX) for the NASA Astronomy Cafe, part of the NASA Education and Public Outreach program.