York team helps NASA test Einstein’s theory


A team of astrophysicists from York is poised to see if the last century’s greatest physicist, Albert Einstein (right), was right or wrong in his theory on general relativity – the warping of space time caused by planets and stars. The scientists will be watching with special interest today as NASA attempts to launch its latest space probe into orbit around Earth. The launch was postponed yesterday, due to high winds.

The York astrophysicists are the Canadian contingent in Gravity Probe B, a US$700 million project more than 40 years in the making, which is to be launched atop a Delta 2 rocket from Southern California’s Vandenburg Air Force Base. Led by Norbert Bartel (below, left), a professor in York’s Department of Physics & Astronomy, Faculty of Pure & Appled Science (FPAS), the team will help analyze data collected on the probe’s one-year flight

York’s leading-edge team includes Michael Beitenholz, Ryan Ransom and Jerusha Lederman, all members of York’s FPAS. Their role in the project is to analyze one set of data on movement of the guide star IM Pegasi, on which Gravity Probe B is focused throughout its one-year mission. Data recorded by giant, long-range satellite dishes around the world will be used to correct the measurements made by four tiny gyroscopes sealed inside the probe.

The project by scientists at Stanford University started as a conversation in 1958, but it wasn’t until the right technology and the money were available that the conversation evolved into Gravity Probe B. The probe’s measurements are expected to show warping of space time as Einstein predicted in 1916 and a related effect called frame-dragging suggested by scientists in the two years following his work.

The York team is also responsible for producing the project’s 26-minute multimedia video, “Testing Einstein’s Universe: The Gravity Probe B Experiment”. The DVD version of the film includes 80 minutes of information featuring York scientists.

The mission has cost approximately three times as much as recent probes to Mars and is unique in that it is a fundamental physics project instead of NASA’s more familiar missions of space exploration and enterprise.

Right: Gravity Probe B

For more information on Gravity Probe B click here. For information on Astronomy Films’ production of “Testing Einstein’s Universe”, click here.

More about Norbert Bartel

Bartel, a professor at York since 1992, has coordinated the University’s Space & Communication Sciences Program since 1995. Prior to arriving at York he was a research associate at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, lecturer on Astronomy at Harvard University and visiting scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, all in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and research scientist at the Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie, Bonn, Germany.

Some of his other responsibilities include his chairmanship of the Radioastronomy Subcommittee of the Canadian Astronomical Society and his membership in the Canadian Space Agency’s Joint Space Astronomy Committee.

Bartel was awarded the Otto Hahn Medal, Max-Planck Society, Germany, in 1979.