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Time Probe: Crowdsourcing Einstein's Relativity : Discovery News

Guest contributor Wayne Hall needs your help to answer the question: How would YOU make the experience of time dilation sensational?


Time dilation is a consequence of Einstein's theories of General and Special Relativity.

Time on the space station will run slightly slower than time down here on Earth.

Kentucky Space aims to fly a clock on board the space station to measure this time dilation, but the organization needs your help to visualize the science!

Time passes at different rates in different gravitational potentials and at different speeds. In other words, time will pass quicker in space than it does down here on the Earth's surface, but a clock on a speeding rocket will appear to run slower when compared with a stationary clock.

This effect is known as "time dilation" and Albert Einstein predicted it in his theory of General Relativity and Special Relativity nearly 100 years ago.

Time dilation has since been proven by experiment and systems such as GPS have to compensate for very slight time mismatches between global positioning satellites and ground receivers.

Although time dilation is a fact of nature, wouldn't it be exciting to carry out a controlled, public experiment to compare the times of a clock on the International Space Station (ISS) to that of a clock on Earth?

Using its access to the ISS, the non-profit organization Kentucky Space is planning a unique time dilation event introducing more people to Einstein's big idea. We know the physics, but what about the fun?

Time Dilation Should Be Sensational

Experiments since the Hafele-Keating flights in 1971 -- when four Cesium atomic clocks were flown on regularly scheduled commercial jet flights around the world -- have confirmed that time dilates depending on how fast and how high you're flying.

But rather than to simply prove that the phenomena of Special and General Relativity are real properties of space and time, Kentucky Space wants to make a love connection between the public and space, between the physics behind our Universe and our experience-loving selves.behind For Time Probe, Kentucky Space, in cooperation with its strategic partner NanoRacks LLC, proposes to integrate an atomic clock with our CubeLab modules. It will secure the Rubidium clocks, build the experimental interfacing and data handling systems, integrate the payload, and meet all the flight requirements to get an orbiting atomic clock on station, working in tandem with its NanoRacks' host and beating its little heart out.

We will keep an identically prepared clock at the Space Science Center at Morehead State University. A predicted time of the clock in orbit (reading the space station's clock while in orbit would be strictly forbidden) will be displayed side-by-side for comparison.

Now think countdown timer in Lost's Swan Station. By hosting both clock displays on the Internet, something wonderful will slowly happen.

Beginning at about the thousandth decimal place on right of the display, the predicted time of the clock aboard the ISS will slowly fall behind the clock on Earth. Accelerated relative to the clock on the ground, and yet experiencing less gravity, the ISS clock will start to slow down relative to the clock on the ground.

Although a final decision hasn't been made about the length of time the ISS clock should remain in space, there is no reason that the orbiting clock couldn't stay aloft for an extended period before it returns to Earth for a final check and the actual time difference confirmed.

Crowdsourcing Time

This is where we need your help. Caltech theoretical physicist Sean Carroll pointed out to me in a conversation at the 2010 IdeaFestival that the difference between the two time sources would need to be amplified -- not changed, of course -- so that the slight time dilation is all the more apparent. After all, an orbital speed of 18,000 miles an hour is fast, but the merest fraction of the speed of light, causing only the slightest mismatch in time.

Sean is right, of course.

But we believe that's a job for artists, not just scientists and engineers. Our web-based digital display is only one idea. So how about it, creative minds? What do you think Discovery News readers?

How would you make time dilation sensational? Does time dilation have a color? Does it beat to the flourishes of Grandmaster Flash or Bach? Can it be touched or embedded in ambient, smart objects that respond to our presence?

Would a Rolex watch care to pit their timekeeping skills against Mother Nature?

If you think outside the atmosphere and want to help us bring Time Probe to the public ahead of schedule, or just want to inquire about how you can identify it, please make contact with us.

Contact me, Wayne Hall, at, or raise your hand with #timeprobe on Twitter. Be sure to follow us on Facebook and tweet us on @KySpace.

How would you make the experience of time dilation sensational?