Farewell, Pioneer Anomaly?

By Sean Carroll | December 15, 2010 3:09 pm

Here’s an excellent article in Popular Science about the Pioneer anomaly. (Via Dan Vergano on Twitter.) The Pioneer spacecraft, launched in the early 1970’s, have been moseying through the outer regions of the Solar System for quite some time now. But a careful analysis of tracking data indicated that the acceleration of the two spacecraft didn’t quite match what we’d expect from gravity; there appears to be an anomalous acceleration, nearly constant over time and pointing toward the Sun. Many new-physics explanations have been proposed, but it’s always been a difficult scenario to master; it’s very hard to imagine a new force that would account for the Pioneer data but not also show up in observations of the outer planets. (The Voyager spacecraft aren’t as useful for this purpose, as they are guided by tiny thrusters that overwhelm the signal, while the Pioneers float freely and are pointed using gyroscopes.)

File-Pioneer_11_Saturn_RingsThe most likely explanation has always been that we didn’t completely understand the spacecraft, or the tracking system. Indeed, it’s been recognized for a while that a small imbalance in how the spacecraft radiated heat could account for the acceleration — but that imbalance didn’t seem to be supported by what we knew about the vessels. That may be changing, however. The Popular Science article is a little cagey, but it mentions a new and unprecedentedly thorough analysis by Viktor Toth and Slava Turshyev that should be coming out soon. Here is as much as they would let on:

Five years have passed. Using the telemetry data, the two scientists created an extremely elaborate “finite element” 3-D computer model of each Pioneer spacecraft, in which the thermal properties of 100,000 positions on their surfaces are independently tracked for the duration of the 30-year mission. Everything there is to know about heat conduction across the spacecraft’s surfaces, as well as the way that heat flow and temperature declined over time as the power of the generators lessened, they know. The results of the telemetry analysis? “The heat recoil force accounts for part of the acceleration,” said Turyshev. They wouldn’t tell me how significant a part. (Turyshev: “We’d like to publish that in the scientific literature.”) But according to Toth, “You can take it to the bank that whatever remains of the anomaly after accounting for that thermal acceleration, it will at most be much less than the canonical value of 8.74 x 10-10 m/s2, and then, mind you, all those wonderful numerical coincidences people talk about are destroyed.”

Doesn’t look good for people who prefer to imagine that wild new physics is responsible. Not that they will go away — the power of wishful thinking is strong. You can already hear them staking out territory, even before the new report comes out:

Other physicists are more combative. “Heat? That’s simply not the right explanation. They are wrong,” commented Johan Masreliez, an independent researcher in Washington who supports the expanding spacetime model of cosmology, for which it is crucial that the value of the Pioneer anomaly equals c times H. “But then I’m biased,” he added.

Even if the new analysis gives a very sensible and believable account of the Pioneer anomaly in terms of very ordinary physics, expect the true believers to hang on for years to come. The rest of us will move on — at least until the next exciting anomaly pops up.

Also: big props to Natalie Wolchover, who wrote the PopSci piece. Very measured tone, carefully researched and well-written.


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Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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