Getting the drop on gravity

Geoff Brumfiel in Nature:

It is any researcher’s nightmare: you spend months setting up a delicate experiment and then, just as it is about to take data, you drop it.

That’s exactly what a team of German scientists did again and again in an effort to understand gravity better. Their nearly indestructible experiment, the results of which are published in this week’s Science1, could soon lead to ultra-sensitive tests of gravity or better sensors for spacecraft.

The canister containing the experiment is dropped down a 146-metre-high tower in Bremen, Germany.

Gravity is mercilessly impartial — on Earth, it accelerates light and heavy objects alike with a tug of 9.8 metres per second squared. That property is the cornerstone of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which states that gravity is indistinguishable from any other type of acceleration. But some physicists wonder whether gravity’s tug might be fractionally different on objects of different mass, or whether it might change its behaviour at short distances — such as those at which the rules of quantum mechanics come into play.

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