Pioneer Anomaly solved: No need to rewrite physics just yet
The gradual slowing of NASA's Pioneer space probes launched in the early 1970s could not be explained by our current model of gravitation, until now.
The case of the Pioneer Anomaly has intrigued and perplexed scientists, engineers and the space-savvy public since 1980, when analysis of tracking data from the twin Pioneer spacecraft showed a small, unexplained slowing of the duo. The answer to the puzzle lies not in weird physics or mysterious dark matter, but simply the effect of heat pushing back on the spacecraft – heat from the spacecraft itself, emanating from electrical current flowing through instruments and the thermoelectric power supply.Skip to next paragraph
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If you’re thinking, “hasn’t this mystery been solved before?” – you’d be right.
Slava Turyshev from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has laboriously worked on the project since 2004, recovering files from back corners of NASA closets and boxes that were on their way to the trash, converting 1970s punch card data to today’s digital format, and poring over all the data that the spacecraft have beamed back to Earth from billions of miles away.
Along the way, Turyshev has published a couple of papers on his work (here’s one from 2011), and in April of this year, The Planetary Society – who was supporting in part Turyshev’s research – claimed victory that the Pioneer Anomaly was solved.
But now, Turyshev has officially published his findings in the journal Physical Review Letters, and JPL saw fit to put out a press release.
However, over the years other scientists figured out that the culprit might be the heat coming from the spacecraft’s components. In 2001, for example, a scientist named Louis K. Sheffer published a paper, “Conventional Forces can Explain the Anomalous Acceleration of Pioneer 10″ and with some good number crunching, determined that “non-isotropic radiation of spacecraft heat” could account for the slowing and “that the entire effect can be explained without the need for new physics.”
Why Sheffer’s paper wasn’t considered more seriously is uncertain, but perhaps at that time the “new physics” idea – that we may have to revise our understanding of gravitational physics — was more intriguing than a mundane effect like heat from the spacecraft’s systems.
But nonetheless, it appears everyone is satisfied with the explanation dutifully resolved by Turyshev and his team of mostly volunteer helpers. And Turyshev’s description of the effect is beautiful in its simplicity:
“The effect is something like when you’re driving a car and the photons from your headlights are pushing you backward,” he said. “It is very subtle.”