Pioneer anomaly

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Trajectories of the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft. (The Pioneer anomaly is much too small to be noticeable at this scale.)

The Pioneer anomaly refers to deviations from projected courses for several spacecraft sent to the outer solar system. The data sent back from both Pioneer spacecraft, Galileo, and Ulysses, represent one of the first meaningful tests of the precision of gravitation predictions over long distances. The spacecraft have deviated from the courses which scientists predicted using general relativity, as well as Newtonian mechanics, indicating that both theories may be fundamentally flawed.


Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 were space probes sent to study the planets Jupiter and Saturn. After following a hyperbolic trajectory around these planets, they had reached escape velocity for the solar system and were flying out. While their main mission was now ended, NASA stayed in radio contact with the craft to study the outskirts of the solar system.[1]

Around the time of Pioneer 11's flyby of Saturn, it was found to be slightly off-course. (Every spacecraft sent to the outer solar system is intended to follow a specific course, predicted by the theory of general relativity. Radio transmissions and radar are used to track spacecraft to ensure that they stay on course.) While this in itself was within the range of error, astronomers continued tracking the craft to find that the anomalous sunward acceleration increased. Currently, Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 are respectively over 30 and 70 AU from the sun, the farthest any spacecraft has gone in near-free-fall. By using Doppler radar, scientists have found that the courses for both the Pioneer spacecraft show a constant acceleration towards the sun of beyond theoretical preditions.[1]

Although the Galileo and Ulysses spacecraft showed some unexpected sunward acceleration, other unpredictable factors, such as the Yarkovsky effect and the thrust caused by radioactive material on board, prohibit any accurate measurement of the effect on these two spacecraft. The confounding effects are even more significant on the Voyager spacecraft, preventing even a discussion of whether the Pioneer Anomaly affects these craft at all.

The Pioneer anomaly is about 1000 times bigger than the two effects contributing to the difference between the acceleration predicted by general relativity and that predicted by classical (Newtonian) gravity. The effect of the increase in inertia due to the Lorentz transform is less than , and the difference in acceleration due to the Schwarzschild metric is also less than .


Originally, scientists supposed that the Pioneer navigation code was in error. However, the code was verified by an independent team. After a rigorous search for all possible effects, the anomaly was determined to be real: the course actually does diverge from models.[1]

Several possible explanations, some flawed, have been proposed for this effect:

In 2010, creation scientist Dr. D. Russell Humphreys weighed in with a religious explanation:

The only non-standard assumption I used was that the matter of the cosmos is limited in extent, with a fair amount of empty space beyond the matter—an assumption supported by the Bible. With those relatively modest beginnings, I was able to explain the Pioneer anomaly — it’s due to a change in the ‘fabric’ of space. In fact, this anomaly could be the first local manifestation we have observed of the expansion of the cosmos, and the first evidence that expansion is occurring in the present, not just the past.
The assumption I used violently contradicts the foundational assumption of the big bang, which says the universe has no centre and no edge. In that model, the fabric of space would not change. Consequently, the big bang model has been unable to explain the anomalous Pioneer acceleration.[2]

Other explanations offered:

  • The anomalous acceleration could be due to the spacecraft venting energy in certain directions.[3] However, such effects would be expected to be more significant earlier on, when the power sources were less degraded.[1] The opposite was actually the case.
  • Drag forces from the particles in space, analogous to air resistance, could be slowing the spacecraft down. While the average concentration of the particles is not high enough to produce the observed acceleration, the Pioneer spacecraft could conceivably have picked up an electric charge which could be attracting the particles.[4]
  • The theory of General Relativity and the Law of Universal Gravitation could be wrong; the gravitational force could be slightly stronger than predicted. In this context, it is important to note that other spacecraft flying in hyperbolic trajectories around celestial bodies have also experienced anomalous gravitational effects.
  • There could be gravitational forces from other celestial bodies that have not been taken into account.
  • A Sept. 2011 paper claims that the anomaly has been shrinking, but is still a mystery.[1]

The generally accepted explanation, published in March 2011, is that the anomaly is caused by the reflection of the radiation from the power source off of the back of the antenna dish.[5] The solution is sometimes described as an application of "Phong shading", a technique of computer graphics that is now considered imprecise. But Phong shading itself is not what is important. The "ray tracing" computer graphics technique that underlies Phong shading was what inspired the scientists to take reflection into account.[6]

The most detailed analysis to date, by some of the original investigators, explicitly looks at two methods of estimating thermal forces, then states "We find no statistically significant difference between the two estimates and conclude that once the thermal recoil force is properly accounted for, no anomalous acceleration remains."[7]

External links


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Michael Martin Nieto and John D Anderson. "Using Early Data to Illuminate the Pioneer Anomaly". Classical and Quantum Gravity, 2005
  2. Pioneer anomaly
  4. William F. Hall. "Can charge drag explain the Pioneer anomaly?" Physics Letters B, 1 March 2007
  7. Turyshev, Slava G.; Toth, Viktor T.; Kinsella, Gary; Lee, Siu-Chun; Lok, Shing M.; Ellis, Jordan (2012). "Support for the Thermal Origin of the Pioneer Anomaly". Physical Review Letters 108 (24): 241101. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.108.241101. PMID 23004253. Bibcode2012PhRvL.108x1101T.