In a first, Galileo’s gravity experiment is re-created in space

Equivalence principle holds up inside an orbiting satellite

satellite illustration

FREE-FALLIN’  Scientists compared the acceleration of two objects in free fall in a satellite orbiting 710 kilometers above Earth (illustrated).

(c) CNES/Virtual-IT 2017

Galileo’s most famous experiment has taken a trip to outer space. The result? Einstein was right yet again. The experiment confirms a tenet of Einstein’s theory of gravity with greater precision than ever before.

According to science lore, Galileo dropped two balls from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to show that they fell at the same rate no matter their composition. Although it seems unlikely that Galileo actually carried out this experiment, scientists have performed a similar, but much more sensitive experiment in a satellite orbiting Earth. Two hollow cylinders within the satellite fell at the same rate over 120 orbits, or about eight days’ worth of free-fall time, researchers with the MICROSCOPE experiment report December 4 in Physical Review Letters. The cylinders’ accelerations match within two-trillionths of a percent.

The result confirms a foundation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity known as the equivalence principle. That principle states that an object’s inertial mass, which sets the amount of force needed to accelerate it, is equal to its gravitational mass, which determines how the object responds to a gravitational field. As a result, items fall at the same rate — at least in a vacuum, where air resistance is eliminated — even if they have different masses or are made of different materials.

The result is “fantastic,” says physicist Stephan Schlamminger of OTH Regensburg in Germany who was not involved with the research. “It’s just great to have a more precise measurement of the equivalence principle because it’s one of the most fundamental tenets of gravity.”

In the satellite, which is still collecting additional data, a hollow cylinder, made of platinum alloy, is centered inside a hollow, titanium-alloy cylinder. According to standard physics, gravity should cause the cylinders to fall at the same rate, despite their different masses and materials. A violation of the equivalence principle, however, might make one fall slightly faster than the other.

As the two objects fall in their orbit around Earth, the satellite uses electrical forces to keep the pair aligned. If the equivalence principle didn’t hold, adjustments needed to keep the cylinders in line would vary with a regular frequency, tied to the rate at which the satellite orbits and rotates. “If we see any difference in the acceleration it would be a signature of violation” of the equivalence principle, says MICROSCOPE researcher Manuel Rodrigues of the French aerospace lab ONERA in Palaiseau. But no hint of such a signal was found.

With about 10 times the precision of previous tests, the result is “very impressive,” says physicist Jens Gundlach of the University of Washington in Seattle. But, he notes, “the results are still not as precise as what I think they can get out of a satellite measurement.”

Performing the experiment in space eliminates certain pitfalls of modern-day land-based equivalence principle tests, such as groundwater flow altering the mass of surrounding terrain. But temperature changes in the satellite limited how well the scientists could confirm the equivalence principle, as these variations can cause parts of the apparatus to expand or contract.

MICROSCOPE’s ultimate goal is to beat other measurements by a factor of 100, comparing the cylinders’ accelerations to see whether they match within a tenth of a trillionth of a percent. With additional data yet to be analyzed, the scientists may still reach that mark.

Confirmation of the equivalence principle doesn’t mean that all is hunky-dory in gravitational physics. Scientists still don’t know how to combine general relativity with quantum mechanics, the physics of the very small. “The two theories seems to be very different, and people would like to merge these two theories,” Rodrigues says. But some attempts to do that predict violations of the equivalence principle on a level that’s not yet detectable. That’s why scientists think the equivalence principle is worth testing to ever more precision — even if it means shipping their experiments off to space.

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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