A satellite screw-up reaffirms Einstein’s theory of gravity

Incorrect orbits let scientists test how clocks change speed in a gravitational field

European Galileo network

SATELLITE SNAFU  Two satellites of the European Galileo network (one illustrated) were launched in incorrect orbits, a mistake that allowed scientists to test Einstein’s theory of gravity.


An orbital oopsie has led to new proof of Albert Einstein’s physics prowess.

In 2014, two satellites intended for Europe’s Galileo network, the equivalent of the United States’ GPS network, were placed into orbit incorrectly, causing them to travel around Earth in ellipses rather than circles. That wasn’t ideal for the satellites’ originally intended navigational use, but scientists realized the wayward satellites were perfect for another purpose: testing Einstein’s theory of gravity, the general theory of relativity.

According to general relativity, gravity affects not just space, but also time. The deeper within a gravitational field you are, the slower time passes (SN: 10/17/15, p. 16). So a clock at a higher altitude will tick faster than one closer to Earth’s surface, where Earth’s gravity is stronger. The satellites’ orbital mishap allowed the most precise test yet of this effect, known as gravitational redshift, two teams of scientists report in a pair of papers in the Dec. 7 Physical Review Letters.

As the two misplaced satellites move in their elliptical orbits, their distance from Earth periodically increases and decreases by about 8,500 kilometers. Using the precise atomic clocks on the satellites, the scientists studied how that altitude change affected the flow of time. The clocks sped up and slowed down by tiny fractions of a second as expected, agreeing with the predictions of general relativity within a few thousandths of a percent, the teams report.

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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