Until now, flying saucers and gravity shields have been the stuff of science fiction. But NASA has just awarded $600 000 to a project that could change all that. The space agency hopes to duplicate the controversial experiments of a Russian scientist who claims to have invented a device that blocks the force of gravity.
NASA's interest in antigravity stems from the weighty matter of getting rockets into orbit. If you could create a device that shields a rocket from the Earth's gravity, the spacecraft would need only a gentle push before it would zoom out of the Earth's atmosphere and into space. Most scientists think this is impossible, but E. E. Podkletnov, a materials scientist at the Moscow Chemical Scientific Research Centre, is not one of them.
Several years ago, in the journal Physica C, Podkletnov claimed that a spinning, superconducting disc lost some of its weight. And, in an unpublished paper on the weak gravitation shielding properties of a superconductor, he argued that such a disc lost as much as 2 per cent of its weight. That's when NASA officials pricked up their ears and decided to get in on the act.
NASA is paying an Ohio-based company, Superconductive Components, to build a 12-inch (31-centimetre) super-conducting disc to continue a series of experiments on gravity shielding. The first experiment didn't work. "For a small disc four to five inches in diameter, we didn't see any gravitational signal much above the noise of tens of nanogees," says Ronald Koczor, a physicist at NASA's Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
However, Koczor and David Noever, also at Marshall, believe that the experiments are worth pursuing. "We're trying to get a 12-inch disc. We succeeded in pressing one last November, and we're trying to set it up to put radio-frequency signals into the disc." The RF signals used by Podkletnov varied from 100 to 1000 megahertz.
According to Ho Paik, a gravitational physicist at the University of Maryland, they are probably wasting their time. "Gravity's produced by mass-it's not produced by quantum mechanics," he says. "I can't see why you'd do an experiment based upon physics that's completely wrong."
But the team seem undaunted. Eventually, Koczor and Noever hope to replicate elements of Podkletnov's experiment more faithfully. "There will be an exhaustion point, but in my opinion anyone who proves it's not worth doing had better have done it in the same way he did," says Noever.
Author: Charles Seife, Washington DC
New Scientist magazine, issue 6th Feb. 99
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