Heraeus in Space

Materials from Heraeus have been used to explore the universe since the moon landing. They are helping find black holes, map the Milky Way, and even prove how the Earth really ‘ticks’.

Gaia Rocket
Source: NASA

The blue and white Delta II rocket thundered into the southern California sky in the morning hours of April 20, 2004. After the Delta II left the Earth’s atmosphere, it released a shimmering silver satellite into the stillness of outer space. Its name: Gravity Probe B. This satellite houses a marvel straight out of a science fiction blockbuster. Some of the world’s most talented physicists worked for decades on this invention to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity.

A bowling ball on a trampoline

The marvel consists of a gleaming block of Heraeus fused silica that is connected to a fused silica telescope and contains four gyroscopes. These spheres, also made of Heraeus fused silica, are the size of ping-pong balls and rotate up to 10,000 times per minute. At the time of the rocket launch, they were the most perfectly spherical objects ever made by human hands. The scientists controlling the satellite from Earth were inspired by Einstein’s theory that the Earth’s mass warps space-time – just like the weight of a bowling ball does a trampoline. The researchers hoped that this effect would alter the furious rotation of the small spheres on board the satellite. But would it prove true?

Twinkle, twinkle, little star

The satellite orbited the Earth for months, and the data that Gravity Probe B sent back to Earth actually did prove Einstein’s theory that the Earth warps space-time. So what happened to Gravity Probe B next? It was officially shut off on December 10, 2010, and has been orbiting the Earth ever since. You can see it up in the night sky, where it will continue to orbit the Earth for 30 years before burning up in the atmosphere.

Don Harley
Source: Don Harley/NASA

Mapping the Milky Way

Heraeus technology is also used deep in outer space on the European satellite Gaia, 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. Gaia basically looks like a silver-colored top hat with a diameter of 10 meters. Its high-tech innards are working to fulfill the dreams of many astronomers by creating a three-dimensional map of the Milky Way. Creating such a map requires a highly sensitive camera, and several of its optical components, such as lenses and prisms, are made from Heraeus quartz glass. When the Gaia mission ends in July 2019, the finished 3D map – charting one billion stars, asteroids, and planets – will change how we see the night sky and deep space.

Tracking gravitational waves

Heraeus will play a role in the future of space exploration as well, in what is possibly the most ambitious ESA project yet: the LISA gravitational wave detector. Quickly orbiting or collapsing celestial bodies, such as stars or black holes, emit gravitational waves, which can slightly shift other masses. In 2018, a Nobel Prize was awarded for the discovery of this movement, which confirmed the existence of gravitational waves. The VIRGO and LIGO detectors, both of which are stationed here on Earth, are already using ultrapure Heraeus quartz glass.

Source: ESA/Gaia/DPAC, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Gold cubes in outer space

Three satellites carrying gold-platinum alloy cubes made by Heraeus will be positioned in deep space in 2034 to detect gravitational waves. A gravitational wave that encounters cubes like these will slightly change the cube’s shape and movement, enabling the detection of cosmic waves that ripple through the entire universe. This technology should make it easier to locate black holes. So, is this science fiction? No. An experiment has already shown that LISA’s measurements are five times more precise than expected. The future is already here.

Michael Schattenmann

Global Head of Storytelling & Marketing

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