Testing Einstein's theory: NASA Gravity Probe B mission

October 1, 2004

As a major NASA mission begins science operations, native DeWitt Burns can make a rare claim - that he helped test Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity.

Burns, a lifelong Athens resident and 1978 graduate of Athens High School, is a member of NASA's Gravity Probe B team. Also known as GP-B, the experiment will test Einstein's theory that space and time are slightly distorted by the presence of massive objects such as planets and stars.

As materials contamination team lead for Gravity Probe B's Materials, Processes and Manufacturing Department at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., Burns evaluated contamination-control measures to help protect the spacecraft. Also, as a member of the gas management assembly redesign team, he played a role in the design, fabrication, testing and integration of hardware that provides spin-up gas to Gravity Probe B's gyroscopes.

Gravity Probe B launched April 20 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., aboard a Boeing Delta II launch vehicle. Orbiting 400 miles above Earth, the Gravity Probe B space vehicle circles the globe every 90 minutes, crossing over both poles.

While on orbit, Gravity Probe B's four ultra-precise gyroscopes will monitor their alignment changes in relation to the mission's guide star, IM Pegasus. One of the anticipated changes is only 42 milliarcseconds after one year, an angle so small that if someone climbed a slope of 42 milliarcseconds for 100 miles, their altitude would be only one inch higher than when they started.

These measurements will enable scientists to track two effects — how space and time are very slightly warped by the presence of the Earth, and how the Earth's rotation very slightly drags space-time around with it.

Considered among the most profound enigmas of physics, these factors have far-reaching implications for the nature of matter and the structure of the universe. Einstein proposed the General Theory of Relativity in 1916, approximately 80 years before the advent of technology capable of testing his theory.

Gravity Probe B's 12-month science-data acquisition period will be followed by a two-month post-science period for calibrations. By 2005 the Gravity Probe B mission will be complete, and a one-year period is planned for scientific analysis of the data.

Burns has a bachelor's degree in engineering from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

NASA's Gravity Probe B program is managed at the Marshall Space Flight Center. NASA's prime contractor for the mission, Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., conceived the experiment and is responsible for the design of the science instrument, as well as for mission operations and data analysis. A major subcontractor, Lockheed Martin of Sunnyvale, Calif., designed and built the spacecraft as well as portions of the science instrument.

More information about the Gravity Probe B mission is available at: http: //einstein.stanford.edu/ and http: //www.gravityprobeb.com

Explore further: Rosetta: The end of a space odyssey

Related Stories

Rosetta: The end of a space odyssey

September 26, 2016

Europe's trailblazing deep-space comet exploration for clues to the origins of the Solar System ends Friday with the Rosetta orbiter joining robot lab Philae on the iceball's dusty surface for eternity.

By the numbers: 12 years chasing a comet

September 30, 2016

It's been 4,595 days since the Rosetta space probe was lifted into orbit on the first stage of its 12-year mission to chase down comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Rosetta spacecraft headed for comet suicide crash

September 30, 2016

Europe's pioneering spacecraft Rosetta headed for a suicide crash Friday with the comet it has stalked for two years, nearing the end of an audacious quest to unravel the Solar System's mysteries.

Rosetta: beginning of the end for Europe's comet craft

September 29, 2016

Europe was poised Thursday to crashland its Rosetta spacecraft on a comet it has stalked for over two years, joining robot lander Philae on the cosmic wanderer's icy surface in a final suicide mission.

Image: French fluidics experiment bound for ISS

October 12, 2016

Have you ever tried walking while carrying a full cup of water? Your steps invariably cause the water to slosh about, making spills hard to avoid. Now imagine a satellite turning – the fuel inside will slosh, affecting ...

Magnetic oceans and electric Earth

October 4, 2016

Oceans might not be thought of as magnetic, but they make a tiny contribution to our planet's protective magnetic shield. Remarkably, ESA's Swarm satellites have not only measured this extremely faint field, but have also ...

Recommended for you

More than 15,000 near-Earth objects and counting

October 28, 2016

The international effort to find, confirm and catalogue the multitude of asteroids that pose a threat to our planet has reached a milestone: 15 000 discovered – with many more to go.

How planets like Jupiter form

October 28, 2016

Young giant planets are born from gas and dust. Researchers of ETH Zürich and the Universities of Zürich and Bern simulated different scenarios relying on the computing power of the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre ...

Novel light sources made of 2-D materials

October 28, 2016

Physicists from the University of Würzburg have designed a light source that emits photon pairs, which are particularly well suited for tap-proof data encryption. The experiment's key ingredients: a semiconductor crystal ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.