I love space mysteries like this.
Being the Trekkie-indoctrinated geek that I am, I’ve often speculated that someday someone will discover a way around Einstein’s theory of relativity (the one that says you can’t travel faster than the speed of light, which pretty much puts the kibosh on ever visiting other galaxies or even solar systems). Things like this, calling into question our admittedly rudimentary human understanding of the universe, gives me hope.
Beyond the edge of the solar system, something has gradually dragged two of America’s oldest space probes — Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 — a quarter-million miles off course. Astrophysicists have struggled 15 years in vain to identify the infinitesimal force at play. The Pioneer anomaly, as it is called, throws a monkey wrench into celestial mechanics.
What could it be? Gravity from an unknown source? Lack of gravity where it would have been expecgted? Expansion of the universe?
Not everything in the solar system adds up, of course. The moon’s actual orbit is off its calculated course by about six millimeters a year. No one knows why. The standard yardstick for length on an interplanetary scale, the Astronomical Unit, grows by about seven centimeters a year. Scientists have yet to agree on an explanation. At least four recent planetary probes experienced such unaccountable changes in velocity as they passed Earth, Dr. Anderson and his colleagues reported this past March in Physical Review Letters.
Or could it be just our imperfect human understanding? After all, who is this Turyeshev?
“We would expect the two spacecraft to follow Newton’s law of gravity,” Dr. Turyshev said, “but they in fact fail to confirm Newton’s law. If Newton is wrong, Einstein is wrong too.”
Now I understand that they might, eventually, find a mundane answer for these questions, something entirely within the realms of Newtonian/Einsteinian physics. After all, if you don’t keep your hand on the steering wheel, your car will drift off-center within a few dozen feet. Photon pressure from the sun, weak gravity from nearby stars, Martian machinations, lack of mother love, all these things might explain the anomaly.
But wait. There’s more.
Then, at JPL in 2002, he discovered 400 computer tapes of Pioneer data gathering dust under a stairwell. In 2005, he intercepted 70 filing cabinets of Pioneer engineering data on their way to the junk heap at the NASA Ames Research Center, at Moffett Field, Calif. The computer files held all of the Pioneer mission data, but they were unreadable.
With no formal NASA funding, almost 6,000 members of The Planetary Society, a space-exploration advocacy group based in Pasadena, Calif., donated $220,000 to translate the antiquated data into a digital format that a modern computer can read. “This is not something that should be brushed away just because it is old data,” said society Executive Director Louis Friedman. Victor Toth, a noted Canadian computer expert, donated his time.
Should NASA be dumping archived information just because it’s old? Isn’t space exploration part of our history, not only America’s but all of mankind’s? Even if it’s routine, unexceptional stuff, shouldn’t some way be found to preserve it, in case someone in the distant future finds a nugget of golden information we never thought of?