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Stanford awards $100 million subcontract for test of Einstein's theory

STANFORD -- Stanford University will award a $100 million subcontract to Lockheed Missiles and Space Co. to build the spacecraft for what may be one of the great physics experiments of the 20th century -- Gravity Probe B, which is designed to test two crucial predictions of Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity.

Lockheed of Sunnyvale, Calif., was chosen as the building subcontractor after a Stanford-led team with five key outside consultants evaluated the proposals. Stanford is developing Gravity Probe B under contract from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, under the direction of Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

The selection of the subcontractor essentially clears the way to schedule Gravity Probe B to be tested aboard the space shuttle in the summer or fall of 1995, and to be placed in polar orbit around the earth by rocket sometime in 1999.

The experiment will measure how space and time are "warped" and "dragged" by the presence of the earth and its rotation by measuring extremely small changes in the spin of four super-round gyroscopes.

The gyros will spin on gas jets within a quartz block so that they touch nothing as they rotate. By freezing the environment around the gyros to near absolute zero, the Stanford scientists will be able to measure the infinitesimal changes in the spin.

If the satellite confirms Einstein's general theory, it will increase astrophysicists' confidence in applying it to new stellar systems, and, perhaps, make some physicists heave a sigh of relief. If it finds Einstein was not completely correct, "all hell will break loose," said principal investigator Francis Everitt. The latter finding would radically alter present views of the structure and origin of the universe.

Stanford engineers and scientists have been working on Gravity Probe B for a third of the life of the university, and the project has taken up most of the professional lives of several of the university's researchers. What began as a conversation between several faculty members in a swimming pool in 1960 has evolved into a $250 million to $300 million project sprawling almost a quarter of a mile across the Stanford campus, employing at any one time as many as 100 people, including Stanford students.

Even before the experiment is launched:

  • Stanford physicists and engineers have created quartz and niobium gyroscopes that are by far the roundest objects ever built by anyone, perhaps the roundest objects in existence. Some vary from the perfectly round by no more than the widths of two atoms.
  • The Stanford researchers have achieved the lowest magnetic field ever attained on earth.
  • The developers have spun off a $2 million project, now funded by the Federal Aviation Administration, that has created a navigational system so accurate it can tell the location of an aircraft within centimeters. * The project has produced 50 doctoral dissertations and has employed more than 200 graduates and undergraduates in the research since it started in 1964.

Gravity Probe B was the first large project to test a new method of managing NASA projects. In it, NASA worked with a university, which in turn subcontracted to a corporation; usually, NASA has gone first to a corporation, which then subcontracted with a university. The new method drastically cut the amount of control and paperwork required for the project.

Gravity Probe B has survived every NASA budget cut because of strong support from the outside scientific community, including that of four Nobel laureates in physics, none from Stanford. Frank McDonald, chief NASA scientist, called it "the most challenging test we'll undertake in this millennium."

"We seem to have strong support at the higher levels of NASA, and I think that has been a major turning point for us," said Professor Brad Parkinson, program manager of the project.

At the moment, the people on the project are working either in Stanford's High Energy Physics Laboratory, an old hangarlike building taking up space once used by Stanford's early linear accelerators, or in a prefabricated building near the engineering complex. The headquarters building is so crammed, the central processing units for the project computers are located along one wall of the men's room.

"We're working first of all on the science payload itself," Parkinson said. "That consists of our building the quartz block, the gyros, the readout system, everything we slide down into the dewar [the thermoslike device that will keep the instruments and gyros supercooled].

"The second aspect is building the dewar and the vacuum probe," he said. "We've 'prototyped' both of those, and those are being done for us by Lockheed in Palo Alto. The vacuum probe is a great big metal tube that maintains the vacuum, is made of aluminum, and slides down into the low magnetic-field region and provides support for the science instrument. It's like a long pencil you slide down into [the dewar]. It's a very complex piece of hardware."

The experimenters have built one dewar that is identical on the inside to the one that will fly in the shuttle and on the rocket, but has special test instrumentation on the outside. They are designing one that will resemble the one to be used in the actual experiment.

Additionally, they are putting together the test equipment that will fly on the shuttle test.

Parkinson said the physicists and engineers are ground- testing the equipment.

During one of the tests, they "achieved the lowest magnetic field ever attained on earth, which is about a tenth of a microgauss."

The remaining task is to actually build the spacecraft for the experiment, the purpose of the Lockheed contract.

Currently, there are 45 faculty and staff from six different Stanford departments: physics, electrical engineering, aeronautics and astronautics, applied physics, mathematics and mechanical engineering working on the project. About 20 undergraduates can be at work at any one time. During the summer, students from other institutions work at Gravity Probe B.

The project even employed several high school students a number of years ago, one of whom is now working on Gravity Probe B while a student at the University of California-Berkeley.

The navigational system spin-off was developed by two graduate students and now is being administered by Stanford's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

"For those detractors who say that a large program can't produce small-scale research, we're the classic counterexample," Parkinson said. "I think what's going on with the [project] is a wonderful example of where technology takes you if you let it -- if you let bright students and encouraging faculty work on these things."



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