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The Gravity Probe B Bailout

Perhaps the most sophisticated satellite ever flown was nearly doomed by a tiny error, and NASA planned to end the experiment. But with a little creative fund-raising, the project may have bought enough time to prove its worth

12 min read

In 1964, before the term ”black hole” was even coined, NASA began funding a project that would test the outer limits of the theory behind black holes, Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Last May, with the project, called Gravity Probe B (GP-B), looking like a US $650-million flop, a NASA review board recommended that all funding be cut off by the end of September.

Now, in a dramatic turnaround, the Gravity Probe B team has secured non-NASA funding to press forward with data analysis of an experiment that has been bogged down by unexpected sources of noise. With the latest round of stopgap funds in place, the group holds out hope that it will either be able to verify or refute one of the most extreme predictions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

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Top Tech 2022: A Special Report

Preview two dozen exciting technical developments that are in the pipeline for the coming year

1 min read
Photo of the lower part of a rocket in an engineering bay.

NASA’s Space Launch System will carry Orion to the moon.

Frank Michaux/NASA

At the start of each year, IEEE Spectrum attempts to predict the future. It can be tricky, but we do our best, filling the January issue with a couple of dozen reports, short and long, about developments the editors expect to make news in the coming year.

This isn’t hard to do when the project has been in the works for a long time and is progressing on schedule—the coming first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System, for example. For other stories, we must go farther out on a limb. A case in point: the description of a hardware wallet for Bitcoin that the company formerly known as Square (which recently changed its name to Block) is developing but won’t officially comment on. One thing we can predict with confidence, though, is that Spectrum readers, familiar with the vicissitudes of technical development work, will understand if some of these projects don’t, in fact, pan out. That’s still okay.

Engineering, like life, is as much about the journey as the destination.

See all stories from our Top Tech 2022 Special Report

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