Is Pluto Affected by the Pioneer Anomaly?

From Pluto, looking at its icy moons in the Kuiper belt (NASA)

The Pioneer Effect is a mysterious observation of a number of man-made probes that venture through and beyond the Solar System. Originally noticed in the slight drift of the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft (launched in 1972 and 1973) from their calculated trajectories, scientists have been at a loss to explain the tiny, yet constant, extra-sunward acceleration.

Some theories suggest that invisible clouds of dark matter are slowing these probes down, causing them to be influenced by the Sun’s gravity more than expected. Other suggestions include ideas that Einstein’s theory of General Relativity needs to be tweaked when considering interplanetary distances.

However, there are other, more mundane ideas. Perhaps there is a tiny fuel leak in the probes’ mechanics, or the distribution of heat through the spacecraft is causing a preferential release of infrared photons from one side, nudging them off course.

Finding an answer to the Pioneer effect probably won’t surface any time soon, but it is an enduring mystery that could have a comparatively simple explanation, within the realms of known science, but there’s also the possibility that we could also be looking at some entirely new physics.

In an attempt to single out whether the Pioneer anomaly is an artefact with the spaceships themselves, or unknown in the physics of the Universe, astronomers decided to analyse the orbits of the planets in the outer Solar System. The rationale being that if this is a large-scale influence, some observable periodic effects should be evident in the orbit of Pluto.

So far, no effect, periodic or otherwise, has been observed in the orbit of Pluto. If the effect isn’t big enough to influence Pluto, does this mean we can narrow the search down to spaceship-specific artefacts?

Not so fast.

Gary Page and John Wallin from George Mason University in Virginia and David Dixon from Jornada Observatory in New Mexico, have published a paper pointing out that the suggestion that the Pioneer effect doesn’t influence Pluto is flawed. Pluto’s orbit is far less understood than the orbits of the inner Solar System planets, as, let’s face it, Pluto is far away.

We simply don’t possess the data required to cancel out the Pioneer effect on planetary bodies in the outer-Solar System to reach the conclusion the anomaly doesn’t influence Pluto.

Of course, this does not mean that the Pioneer effect exists. It does mean that we cannot deny the existence of the Pioneer effect on the basis of motions of the Pluto as currently known.” — Page et al., 2009

So, back to the drawing board. This is a fascinating study into a true Solar System mystery; bets are on as to the real reason why our interplanetary probes are being knocked off course…

Source: The Physics arXiv Blog