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The Pioneer Anomaly may not be anomalous

Sun, 3rd Apr 2011

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The Pioneer Anomaly sounds like some kind of thriller novel, but is actually a slight accelleration on the Pioneer probes, these are space probes launched in the 1970s and now the most distant man made objects. As they headed away from the solar system their path was carefully tracked, and a strange anomoly was discovered, they were decellerating slightly faster than they should be according to einsteinian gravity.

This effect was tiny, about 1 part in 10-10 ms-2 , but it was measurable, and it got lots of theoratitions very interested. This is because studies of galaxies indicate that gravity may be stronger at longer distances, so lots of theorists were creating new theories of gravity to fit the data.

In 2008 a third of the anomoly was explained by Frederico Francisco and collegues, the spacecraft generates power from heat produced by radioactive decay, this heat is lost by thermal radiation, which is a form of light. Light carries momentum, so can apply a force to the spacecraft. But they hadn't managed to explain the whole anomaly.

Now they think they have a source of heat the main electronics compartment is immediately behind the parabolic dish the spacecraft uses to communicate with earth. So thermal radiation from the electronics will reflect off the dish giving the spacecraft a slight extra decelleration, explaining very neatly the anomaly.

So unfortunately for the theorists and their chances of a Nobel prize, Einstein's equations still hold.



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At optical frequencies a radiated power of 300Mw is required to produce a thrust of 1 n, I would expect the outer casing of the electronics package to have a temperature of about 50K.
This would produce a very small thrust compared with that produced by the radioactive power source for which allowance has already been made.
syhprum, Wed, 6th Apr 2011

"1 part in 10^-10 ms^-2"? I think you mean "1 part in 10^10" (i.e., +10 not -10, and no units) Derek, Fri, 20th May 2011

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