Could Dark Matter be the Root Cause of Flyby Anomalies?

by Ian O'Neill on May 21, 2008

When space probes Galileo, Rosetta, NEAR and Cassini carried out Earth flyby manoeuvre, scientists measured a bizarre and unpredictable jumps in orbital acceleration. To this day, the phenomenon remains unexplained, but there are many ideas as to how this flyby anomaly may be caused. As previously reported on the Universe Today, some of the scientific explanations can be pretty exotic (the Unruh Effect, after all, isn’t that easy to understand), but this new theory is just as captivating. In a new study from the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, one researcher thinks dark matter might be messing around with our robotic explorers…

Dark matter is probably one of the most interesting, yet controversial, ideas in advanced cosmological studies. We have reported on many of the existing theories as to how we might be able to detect the Universe’s “missing matter” and it is thought that the bulk of universal mass may be held in a range of sub-atomic to massive stellar objects.

The flyby anomalies have been attributed to measurement error (spaceships using the Earth as a gravitational slingshot have their velocities measured by Doppler radar instruments on ground-based observatories), the Unruh effect, even variations in the speed of light, but so far, dark matter hasn’t really featured. So if there is dark matter out there in space, perhaps it will influence the spaceships we send out there. Now Stephen Adler at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton examines this possibility and imposes some limits that dark matter may influence flyby anomalies.

The biggest challenge facing any anomaly theory is that spacecraft have experienced increases and decreases in acceleration, what could be the chief suspect causing these sudden changes in acceleration? Alder points to the strange physics behind dark matter accumulating around the Earth, confined within a planetary ring, much like the visible rings around Saturn. What’s more, to explain flyby observations, the ring would have to contain at least two types of dark matter (non-baryonic particles). Interestingly, I recently wrote about the proposed LUX detector to be buried in a disused South Dakota goldmine. This detector will be the first of its kind to attempt to measure the elusive Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPS) that have been theorized to contain large quantities of matter, hence a large proportion of the dark matter in our universe. This leads to the possibility that the Earth may be passing through “clouds” of WIMPs, giving some credence to the idea that dark matter varieties may also be contained in the volume of space surrounding Earth. As spacecraft orbiting Earth passes through this dark matter ring, perhaps there will be some complex interaction causing this sudden change in acceleration.

For more technical information, have a read of the arXiv publication: “Can the flyby anomaly be attributed to earth-bound dark matter?” by Stephen L. Adler.

Source: arXiv blog


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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog:, be sure to check it out!

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