Tests of General Relativity - Modern Tests - The Equivalence Principle - Gravitational Redshift

Gravitational Redshift

The first of the classical tests discussed above, the gravitational redshift, is a simple consequence of the Einstein equivalence principle and was predicted by Einstein in 1907. As such, it is not a test of general relativity in the same way as the post-Newtonian tests, because any theory of gravity obeying the equivalence principle should also incorporate the gravitational redshift. Nonetheless, confirming the existence of the effect was an important substantiation of relativistic gravity, since the absence of gravitational redshift would have strongly contradicted relativity. The first observation of the gravitational redshift was the measurement of the shift in the spectral lines from the white dwarf star Sirius B by Adams in 1925. Although this measurement, as well as later measurements of the spectral shift on other white dwarf stars, agreed with the prediction of relativity, it could be argued that the shift could possibly stem from some other cause, and hence experimental verification using a known terrestrial source was preferable.

Experimental verification of gravitational redshift using terrestrial sources took several decades, because it is difficult to find clocks (to measure time dilation) or sources of electromagnetic radiation (to measure redshift) with a frequency that is known well enough that the effect can be accurately measured. It was confirmed experimentally for the first time in 1960 using measurements of the change in wavelength of gamma-ray photons generated with the Mössbauer effect, which generates radiation with a very narrow line width. The experiment, performed by Pound and Rebka and later improved by Pound and Snyder, is called the Pound–Rebka experiment. The accuracy of the gamma-ray measurements was typically 1%. The blueshift of a falling photon can be found by assuming it has an equivalent mass based on its frequency (where h is Planck's constant) along with, a result of special relativity. Such simple derivations ignore the fact that in general relativity the experiment compares clock rates, rather than energies. In other words, the "higher energy" of the photon after it falls can be equivalently ascribed to the slower running of clocks deeper in the gravitational potential well. To fully validate general relativity, it is important to also show that the rate of arrival of the photons is greater than the rate at which they are emitted. A very accurate gravitational redshift experiment, which deals with this issue, was performed in 1976, where a hydrogen maser clock on a rocket was launched to a height of 10,000 km, and its rate compared with an identical clock on the ground. It tested the gravitational redshift to 0.007%.

Although the Global Positioning System (GPS) is not designed as a test of fundamental physics, it must account for the gravitational redshift in its timing system, and physicists have analyzed timing data from the GPS to confirm other tests. When the first satellite was launched, some engineers resisted the prediction that a noticeable gravitational time dilation would occur, so the first satellite was launched without the clock adjustment that was later built into subsequent satellites. It showed the predicted shift of 38 microseconds per day. This rate of discrepancy is sufficient to substantially impair function of GPS within hours if not accounted for. An excellent account of the role played by general relativity in the design of GPS can be found in Ashby 2003.

Other precision tests of general relativity, not discussed here, are the Gravity Probe A satellite, launched in 1976, which showed gravity and velocity affect the ability to synchronize the rates of clocks orbiting a central mass; the Hafele–Keating experiment, which used atomic clocks in circumnavigating aircraft to test general relativity and special relativity together; and the forthcoming Satellite Test of the Equivalence Principle.

Read more about this topic:  Tests Of General Relativity, Modern Tests, The Equivalence Principle

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