Space is Like Honey: Cold, Smooth Balls Pay Off Big (which wouldn’t surprise Einstein)

Gravity Probe B frame dragging

Time flies. But it cheats, being woven into the fabric of the space of the reality we perceive. And 6 years ago, whatever that is, I wrote a little piece called Warped Gyrations – Gravity Probe B which hinted around the NASA and Stanford experiment.

The satellite was called Gravity Probe B and it had gyroscopes; amazing gyroscopes with perfectly smooth balls, at least down to 40 atomic layers worth of smooth.

And smooth balls are sensitive balls. They’ve been up in space around Earth spinning, while the Earth spins. If Einstein is right-ish, then things spinning in space will drag the fabric of spacetime along with them, as if all space were a very slightly clingy, viscous liquid.

Now, these several years later, after analyzing the data, scientists can verify this: Earth creates its very own spacetime vortex as it rotates. More massive objects, such as neutron stars and black holes should downright twist spacetime insanely all around them. That’s just an extra added treat to enjoy as you’re swallowed up.

So for those of you who believe we benefit from the money invested in military science, just look at a couple of insights we have gained from this one, small experiment, practically free in comparison.

Jeff Kolodziejczak, the NASA project scientist says, about Gravity Probe B, “If experimental science is an art, then I would look at GP-B as a Renaissance masterpiece.” He’s right.

Most notably, to detect “frame dragging” of spacetime, as an object rotates within space, requires incredibly sensitive instruments, even for an object as massive as our planet. GP-B had to become a self-contained environment of near perfection, free from such terrible influences as the Earth’s magnetic field, or even the influence exerted by colliding with atoms in the course of orbital space flight.

It is a degree of perfection so extreme that it could not be allowed to interfere with itself, even to measure the spin of its own gyroscopes.

But it does measure them. The balls are coated with a nearly perfectly uniform metallic layer of niobium, which becomes a superconductor at the cryogenic temperatures inside Gravity Probe B — producing a tiny magnetic field as they spin.

But if you also have a superconducting wire wrapped around these balls, and are able to detect the quantum interference generated by the magnetic field, you can determine how fast they are spinning without even touching them, at all, with anything, even a harsh torrent of light particles.

The wider-landscape thinkers will be wondering, what about the Earth’s magnetic field getting in the way? Surely that would overwhelm any results you could possibly measure from small spinning gyroscopes.

And you would be right. That’s why you must discover a way to block the Earth’s magnetic field. No problem for NASA’s Kolodziejczak and his team. They’re using superconducting bags. Of lead. The gyroscopes live inside these bags. And these lead bags live inside a 400 gallon liquid helium cryogenic chamber, chilled to a nippy -456 degrees Fahrenheit. And that makes even lead a superconductor, effectively blocking the Earth’s magnetic field from the near absolute zero temperature.

All the while, Gravity Probe B has an eye watching the far star IM Pegasus. The star helps GP-B determine if the gyroscopes are tilting. This star will even be moving, along with the probe, but moving with precisely known rates which are accounted.

There is plenty more you can read about the probe’s devices at NASA if you’re interested. In the meantime, though, rest assured – as you walk through the room all spacetime does, indeed, warp around you. And not only that, you’re swimming around in the sticky stuff, even when only completely empty space surrounds you!

It’s freaky stuff. Important stuff. The nature of reality sort of stuff. I haven’t heard it mentioned anywhere in the larger public space. An event that will likely prove to be one of the telling events in the history of science – an event that will be taught to scientists for generations to come, silently passes us by.

What a curious thing to be alive in perception, at a given time point.