Something is up with the laws of physics


From Economist.com, Wanted: Einstein Jr: Something seems wrong with the laws of physics. Spacecraft are not behaving in the way that they should.

(Caveat: I’m no physicist, and this isn’t a physics blog. )

It’s tantalizing.  From the article:

In 1990 mission controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which operates America’s unmanned interplanetary space probes, noticed something odd happen to a Jupiter-bound craft, called Galileo. As it was flung around the Earth in what is known as a slingshot manoeuvre (designed to speed it on its way to the outer solar system), Galileo picked up more velocity than expected. Not much. Four millimetres a second, to be precise. But well within the range that can reliably be detected.

Once might be happenstance. But this strange extra acceleration was seen subsequently with two other craft. That, as Goldfinger would have put it, looks like enemy action. So a team from JPL has got together to analyse all of the slingshot manoeuvres that have been carried out over the years, to see if they really do involve a small but systematic extra boost. The answer is that they do.

Altogether, John Anderson and his colleagues analysed six slingshots involving five different spacecraft. Their paper on the matter is about to be published in Physical Review Letters. Crucially for the idea that there really is a systematic flaw in the laws of physics as they are understood today, their data can be described by a simple formula. It is therefore possible to predict what should happen on future occasions.

That is what Dr Anderson and his team have now done. They have worked out the exact amount of extra speed that should be observed when they analyse the data from a slingshot last November, which involved a craft called Rosetta. If their prediction is correct, it will confirm that the phenomenon is real and that their formula is capturing its essence. Although the cause would remain unknown, a likely explanation is that something in the laws of gravity needs radical revision.

A tip of the hat to Robin Alexander.

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