Zero gravity

Science fiction comes a step closer to the real world

Published: Friday 30 April 1999

-- technology is finally catching up with what science fiction authors had written some five decades ago. Back then, no self-respecting science fiction author and would be caught dead without one or more (preferably more) anti-gravity device in their plots. According to recent reports, the us National Aeronautics and Space Administration ( nasa ) has awarded us $600,000 to a project that hopes to duplicate a controversial Russian invention which, according to its inventor, can 'block' the force of gravity.

nasa 's interest in anti-gravity is obvious: transporting those heavy components by rockets to outer space is not exactly an easy job and despite the fall in international oil prices, rocket fuel probably remains as expensive as ever. If they could develop an anti-gravity device and put it inside their rockets, all it would need to zoom off to outer space and beyond would be a gentle push. And a successful anti-gravity device will cut industrial costs by more than half, as all industries spend formidable amounts transporting heavy components and then setting these up. But that still remains an ambitious and far-fetched dream, going by what physicists think of nasa 's latest foray into science fiction: all dismiss it as "preposterous". But E D Podkletnov, a material scientist at the Moscow Chemical Scientific Research Centre, is not one of them.

Several years ago, Russian science journal Physica published Podkletnov's paper, in which the scientist claimed that a spinning, superconducting disc lost some of its weight. Further, in another unpublished paper on the weak gravitational properties of a superconductor, he argued that such a disc lost some 2 per cent of its weight. And that was when nasa people picked up the information and moved in.

Now, nasa is paying an Ohio-based firm, Superconductive Components, to build a 12-inch (31-cm) superconducting disc and carry out several anti-gravity tests. The first experiment, informs the British science journal New Scientist (Vol 161, No 2172), did not work. "For a small disc, we didn't see any gravitational signal much above the noise of tens of nanogees," the magazine quoted Ronald Koczor, a physicist at nasa' s Marshall Spaceflight Center at Huntsville, Alabama.

However, Koczor and David Noever, also at Marshall, think that the experiments are really worth pursuing. "We're trying to get a 31-cm disc. We succeeded in making one last November, and we're trying to set it up for radio-frequency ( rf ) signals into the disc." The rf signals used by the Russian scientist ranged from 100 to 1,000 megahertz.

According Ho Paik, a gravitational physicist at the University of Maryland, nasa is probably just wasting their time. "Gravity is 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."

The nasa team, however, are not letting sceptics bother them or their experiment.

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