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Gravity Probe B with solar panels folded

Gravity Probe B (GP-B) is a satellite-based mission which launched on 20 April 2004.[1] The spaceflight phase lasted until 2005,[2] and data analysis is expected to continue through 2010.[3] Its aim is to measure spacetime curvature near Earth, and thereby the stress-energy tensor (which is related to the distribution and the motion of matter in space) in and near Earth. This will provide a test of general relativity, gravitomagnetism and related models.

Initial results confirmed the expected geodetic effect to an accuracy of about 1%. The expected frame-dragging effect was similar in magnitude to the current noise level (the noise being dominated by initially unmodeled effects). Work is continuing potentially to as late as March 2010, to model and account for these sources of unintended signal, thus permitting extraction of the frame-dragging signal if it exists at the expected level. By August 2008 the uncertainty in the frame-dragging signal had been reduced to 15%,[4] and the December 2008 NASA report indicated that the geodetic effect was confirmed to better than 0.5%.[5]



Gravity Probe B was a relativity gyroscope experiment funded by NASA. Efforts were led by Stanford University physics department with Lockheed Martin as the primary subcontractor. Mission scientists view it as the second gravity experiment in space, following the successful launch of Gravity Probe A (GP-A) in 1976.

A representation of the geodetic effect.

Some preliminary results were presented at a special session during the American Physical Society meeting, 14–17 April 2007. NASA initially requested a proposal for extending the GP-B data analysis phase through December 2007. The data analysis phase was further extended to September 2008, and possibly March 2010, when definitive science results on the frame-dragging effect are expected. The mission plans were to test two unverified predictions of general relativity: frame-dragging and the geodetic effect.

The experiment planned to check, very precisely, tiny changes in the direction of spin of four gyroscopes contained in an Earth satellite orbiting at 650 km (400 mi) altitude, crossing directly over the poles. The gyroscopes were so free from disturbance that they provided a near-perfect space-time reference system. They were intended to measure how space and time are "warped" by the presence of the Earth, and by how much the Earth's rotation "drags" space-time around with it. This is the so-called frame-dragging effect, an example of gravitomagnetism. It is an analog of magnetism in classical electrodynamics, only this time caused by rotating masses rather than rotating electric charges.

Previously, only two analyses of the laser-ranging data obtained by the two LAGEOS satellites, published in 1997 and 2004, claimed to have found the frame-dragging effect with an accuracy of about 20% and 10% respectively,[6][7][8] whereas Gravity Probe B aims to measure the effect to a precision of 1%. However, subsequent analysis showed that the level of total uncertainty of the tests conducted with the two LAGEOS satellites has likely been greatly underestimated.[9][10][11][12][13][14] A recent analysis of Mars Global Surveyor data has claimed to have confirmed the effect to a precision of 0.5%,[15] although the accuracy of this claim is disputed.[16] [17] [18] Also the Lense–Thirring effect of the Sun has been recently investigated in view of a possible detection with the inner planets in the near future.[19][20]

The probe has also detected the so-called geodetic effect, a much larger effect caused by space-time being 'curved' by the mass of the Earth. A gyroscope's axis when parallel transported around the Earth in one complete revolution does not end up pointing in exactly the same direction as before. The angle 'missing' may be thought of as the amount the gyroscope 'leans over' into the slope of the space-time curvature. A more precise explanation for the space curvature part of the geodetic precession is obtained by using a nearly flat cone to model the space curvature of the Earth's gravitational field. Such a cone is made by cutting out a thin 'pie-slice' from a circle and gluing the cut edges together. The spatial geodetic precession is a measure of the missing 'pie-slice' angle. Gravity Probe B should measure this effect to an accuracy of one part in 10,000, the most stringent check on general relativistic predictions to date.

The launch was planned for 19 April 2004 at Vandenberg Air Force Base but was scrubbed within 5 minutes of the scheduled launch window due to changing winds in the upper atmosphere. An unusual feature of the mission is that it only had a one-second launch window due to the precise orbit required by the experiment. On 20 April, at 9:57:23 AM PDT (16:57:23 UTC) the spacecraft was launched successfully. The satellite was placed in orbit at 11:12:33 AM (18:12:33 UTC) after a cruise period over the south pole and a short second burn. The mission lasted 16 months.

Experimental setup

At the time, the fused quartz gyroscopes created for Gravity Probe B were the most nearly perfect spheres ever created by humans.[21] The gyroscopes differ from a perfect sphere by no more than 40 atoms of thickness, refracting the image of Einstein in background.

The Gravity Probe B experiment comprises four gyroscopes and a reference telescope sighted on HR8703 (also known as IM Pegasi), a binary star in the constellation Pegasus. In polar orbit, with the gyro spin directions also pointing toward HR8703, the frame-dragging and geodetic effects came out at right angles, each gyroscope measuring both.

The gyroscopes are housed in a dewar of superfluid helium, maintaining a temperature of under 2 kelvins (−271 °C, −456 °F). Near-absolute zero temperatures are required in order to minimize molecular interference, and enable the lead and niobium components of the gyroscope mechanisms to become superconductive.

At the time, the gyroscopes were the most nearly spherical objects ever made. Approximately the size of ping pong balls, they are perfectly round to within forty atoms (less than 10 nm). If scaled to the size of the earth, the tallest mountains would be 2.4 m (8 ft) high.[22] They are composed of fused quartz and coated with an extremely thin layer of niobium. A primary concern is minimizing any influence on their spin, so the gyroscopes must never touch their containing compartment. They are held suspended with electric fields, spun up using a flow of helium gas, and their spin axes are sensed by monitoring the magnetic field of the superconductive niobium layer with SQUIDs. (A spinning superconductor generates a magnetic field precisely aligned with the rotation axis – see London moment.)

IM Pegasi was chosen as the guide star for multiple reasons. First, it needed to be bright enough to be usable for sightings. Then it was close to the ideal positions at the equator of the sky coordinates. Also important was its well understood motion in the sky, which was helped by the fact that this star emits relatively strong radio signals. As a preparation for the setup of this mission, astronomers analyzed the radio-based position measurements with respect to far distant quasars taken over the last few years to understand its motion as precisely as needed.


The conceptual design for this mission was first proposed by an MIT professor, George Pugh, who was working with the U.S. Department of Defense in 1959 and later discussed by Leonard Schiff (Stanford) in 1960 at Pugh's suggestion. It was proposed to NASA in 1961, and they supported the project with funds in 1964. This grant ended in 1977 after a long phase of engineering research into the basic requirements and tools for the satellite.

In 1986 NASA changed plans for the shuttle, which forced the mission team to switch from a shuttle-based launch design to one that is based on the Delta 2, and in 1995 tests planned of a prototype on a shuttle flight were cancelled as well.

Gravity Probe B marks the first time in history that a university has been in control of the development and operations of a space satellite funded by NASA.

Mission timeline

This is a list of major events for the GP-B experiment.

  • 20 April 2004: Launch of GP-B from Vandenberg AFB and successful insertion into polar orbit.
  • 27 August 2004: GP-B entered its science phase. On mission day 129 all systems were configured to be ready for data collection, with the only exception being gyro 4, which needed further spin axis alignment.
  • 15 August 2005: The science phase of the mission ended and the spacecraft instruments transitioned to the final calibration mode.
  • 26 September 2005: The calibration phase ended with liquid helium still in the dewar. The spacecraft was returned to science mode pending the depletion of the last of the liquid helium.
  • February 2006: Phase I of data analysis complete
  • September 2006: Analysis team realised that more error analysis, particularly around the polhode motion of the gyros, was necessary than could be done in the time to April 2007, and applied to NASA for an extension of funding to the end of 2007.
  • December 2006: Completion of Phase III of data analysis
  • 14 April 2007: Announcement of best results obtained to date. Francis Everitt gave a plenary talk at the meeting of the American Physical Society announcing initial results:[23] "The data from the GP-B gyroscopes clearly confirm Einstein's predicted geodetic effect to a precision of better than 1 percent. However, the frame-dragging effect is 170 times smaller than the geodetic effect, and Stanford scientists are still extracting its signature from the spacecraft data." — Gravity Probe B website[24]


On 9 February 2007, it was announced that a number of unexpected signals had been received and that these would need to be separated out before final results could be released. In April it was announced that the spin axes of the gyroscopes were affected by torque, in a manner that varied over time, requiring further analysis to allow the results to be corrected for this source of error. Consequently, the date for the final release of data has been pushed back from April 2007 to December 2007, and subsequently to September 2008, and possibly March 2010. In the data for the frame-dragging results presented at the April 2007 meeting of the American Physical Society, the random errors were much larger than the theoretical expected value and scattered on both the positive and negative sides of a null result, therefore causing skepticism on whether any useful data could be extracted in the future to test this effect.

In June 2007, a detailed update was released explaining the cause of the problem, and the solution that was being worked on. Although electrostatic patches caused by non-uniform coating of the spheres was anticipated, and was thought to have been controlled for before the experiment, it is now known that the final layer of the coating on the spheres defined two halves of slightly different potential, which gave the sphere an electrostatic axis. This created a classical dipole torque on each rotor, of a magnitude similar to the expected frame dragging effect. In addition, it dissipated energy from the polhode motion by inducing currents in the housing electrodes, causing the motion to change with time. This meant that a simple time-average polhode model was insufficient, and a detailed orbit by orbit model was needed to remove the effect. As it was anticipated that "anything could go wrong", the final part of the flight mission was calibration, where amongst other activities, data was gathered with the spacecraft axis deliberately mis-aligned for 24 hours, to exacerbate any potential problems. This data proved invaluable for identifying the effects. With the electrostatic torque modelled as a function of axis misalignment, and the polhode motion modelled at a sufficiently fine level, it is hoped to isolate the relativity torques to the originally expected resolution.

Stanford has agreed to release the raw data to the public at an unspecified date in the future. It is likely that this data will be examined by independent scientists and independently reported to the public well after the September 2008 release. Because future interpretations of the data by scientists outside of GP-B may differ from the official results, it may take several more years for all of the data received by GP-B to be completely understood.

NASA review

A review by a panel of 15 experts commissioned by NASA has recommended against extending the data analysis phase beyond 2008. They warn that the required reduction in noise level (due to classical torques and breaks in data collection due to solar flares) "is so large that any effect ultimately detected by this experiment will have to overcome considerable (and in our opinion, well justified) skepticism in the scientific community".[25]

Data Analysis after NASA

NASA funding and sponsorship of the program ended on 30 September 2008, but GP-B has secured alternative funding that will enable the science team to continue working at least through December 2009. On 29 August 2008, the 18th meeting of the external GP-B Science Advisory Committee was held at Stanford to report progress The ensuing SAC report to NASA states:

The progress reported at SAC-18 was truly extraordinary and we commend the GPB team for this achievement. This has been a heroic effort, and has brought the experiment from what seemed like a state of potential failure, to a position where the SAC now believes that they will obtain a credible test of relativity, even if the accuracy does not meet the original goal. In the opinion of the SAC Chair, this rescue warrants comparison with the mission to correct the flawed optics of the Hubble Space Telescope, only here at a minuscule fraction of the cost.
SAC #18 Report to NASA

See also


  1. ^ "Gravity Probe B: FAQ". Retrieved 2009-05-14.  
  2. ^ "Gravity Probe B: FAQ". Retrieved 2009-05-14.  
  3. ^ "Gravity Probe B: FAQ". Retrieved 2009-05-14.  
  4. ^ Gugliotta, G. (16 February 2009). "Perseverance Is Paying Off for a Test of Relativity in Space". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-02-18.  
  5. ^ Everitt, C.W.F.; Parkinson, B.W. (2009). "Gravity Probe B Science Results—NASA Final Report" (PDF). Retrieved 2009-05-02.  
  6. ^ Ciufolini, I.; Lucchesi, D.; Vespe, F.; Chieppa, F. (1997). "Detection of Lense–Thirring Effect Due to Earth's Spin". arΧiv:gr-qc/9704065 [gr-qc].  
  7. ^ "Einstein's warp effect measured". BBC News. 21 October 2004. Retrieved 2009-05-14.  
  8. ^ Peplow, M. (2004). "Spinning Earth twists space". Nature News. doi:10.1038/news041018-11.  
  9. ^ Iorio, L. (2005). "On the reliability of the so far performed tests for measuring the Lense–Thirring effect with the LAGEOS satellites". New Astronomy 10: 603–615. doi:10.1016/j.newast.2005.01.001.  
  10. ^ Iorio, L. (2006). "A critical analysis of a recent test of the Lense–Thirring effect with the LAGEOS satellites". Journal of Geodesy 80: 123–136. doi:10.1007/s00190-006-0058-4.  
  11. ^ Iorio, L. (2007). "An assessment of the measurement of the Lense–Thirring effect in the Earth gravity field, in reply to: "On the measurement of the Lense–Thirring effect using the nodes of the LAGEOS satellites, in reply to "On the reliability of the so far performed tests for measuring the Lense–Thirring effect with the LAGEOS satellites" by L. Iorio," by I. Ciufolini and E. Pavlis". Planetary and Space Science 55: 503. doi:10.1016/j.pss.2006.08.001.  
  12. ^ Iorio, L. (2009). "Conservative evaluation of the uncertainty in the LAGEOS-LAGEOS II Lense–Thirring test". Central European Journal of Physics. doi:10.2478/s11534-009-0060-6.  
  13. ^ Iorio, L. (2009). "An Assessment of the Systematic Uncertainty in Present and Future Tests of the Lense–Thirring Effect with Satellite Laser Ranging". Space Science Reviews. doi:10.1007/s11214-008-9478-1.  
  14. ^ Iorio, L. (2009). "Recent Attempts to Measure the General Relativistic Lense–Thirring Effect with Natural and Artificial Bodies in the Solar System". Proceedings of Science PoS (ISFTG). 017. arΧiv:0905.0300.  
  15. ^ Iorio, L. (2006). "A note on the evidence of the gravitomagnetic field of Mars". Classical and Quantum Gravity 23: 5451. doi:10.1088/0264-9381/23/17/N01.  
  16. ^ Krogh, K. (2007). "Comment on 'Evidence of the gravitomagnetic field of Mars'". Classical and Quantum Gravity 24: 5709. doi:10.1088/0264-9381/24/22/N01.  
  17. ^ Iorio, L. (2009). "On the Lense-Thirring test with the Mars Global Surveyor in the gravitational field of Mars". [[ Central European Journal of Physics]]. doi:10.2478/s11534-009-0117-6.  
  18. ^ Iorio, L. (2009). "Recent Attempts to Measure the General Relativistic Lense–Thirring Effect with Natural and Artificial Bodies in the Solar System". Proceedings of Science PoS (ISFTG). 017. arΧiv:0905.0300.  
  19. ^ Iorio, L. (2005). "Is it possible to measure the Lense–Thirring effect on the orbits of the planets in the gravitational field of the Sun?". Astronomy and Astrophysics 431: 385. doi:10.1051/0004-6361:20041646.  
  20. ^ Iorio, L. (2008). "Advances in the Measurement of the Lense–Thirring Effect with Planetary Motions in the Field of the Sun". Scholarly Research Exchange 2008: 1. doi:10.3814/2008/105235.  
  21. ^ Barry, P.L. (26 April 2004). "A Pocket of Near-Perfection". Science@NASA. Retrieved 2009-05-20.  
  22. ^ Hardwood, W. (20 April 2004). "Spacecraft launched to test Albert Einstein's theories". Spaceflight Now. Retrieved 2009-05-14.  
  23. ^ "Exciting April Plenary Talks – Saturday, April 14". Retrieved 2006-11-16.  
  24. ^ Khan, B. (14 April 2007). "Was Einstein Right" (PDF). Stanford News. Retrieved 2009-05-14.  
  25. ^ Hecht, J. (20 May 2008). "Gravity Probe B socres 'F' in NASA review". New Scientist. Retrieved 2008-05-20.  

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