Could Dark Matter be the Root Cause of Flyby Anomalies?

Article written: 21 May , 2008
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015

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

19 Responses

  1. LLDIAZ says

    one quick question plz
    Why is it that every thing we cant explain turns out to be dark matter.

  2. Badthing says

    Yeah! Why do scientists keep coming up with new theories about things that are unexplained?! Why don’t they just cut it out.

  3. Dark Gnat says

    Exactly. It’s a waste of time to search for an explanation to things we don’t know.

    Scientists should focus on science.


  4. Or superstrings. It really starts to feel like the ‘reverse the polarity’ solutions that sci-fi often use to get characters out of sticky situations.

    “Maybe it’s the mystery catch-all substance we have yet to interact with through anything but pure inference.”

    Sounds like a trope to me, though a fun one to think about and to study.

  5. Emission Nebula says

    Dark Gnat, Amen 🙂

    Why would we bother to learn about something that we dont understand? Thats just crazy talk 😉

    Dark matter could very well be the reason for flyby anomalies. Is it possible that dark matter is more or less a lack of understanding about how gravity and matter work together on a larger scale?
    Just a thought.

  6. RL says

    If there was dark mater orbiting the Earth, wouldn’t it have been noticed with every launch of a satellite and a probe? I thought the flyby anomalies were confined to very specific trajectories and confined to a few probes.

  7. Astrofiend says

    The Unruh Effect – I’d actually never even heard of this before. Just looked it up on Wikipedia – fascinating!

    Cool name to boot…

  8. Silver Thread says

    I wonder if Dark matter is to space what Water is to the Ocean. Sort of a ubiquitous medium through which all things travel, but essentially undetectable to objects within the medium, though obviously it’s effects could be perceived.

  9. Ryan says

    That’s an interesting perspective, Silver.

    Anyway, just to point out, the planet Neptune was once what we now consider dark matter since it was used as a theory to help explain Uranus’s orbit before it was ever directly observed. A lot of the time dark matter is just matter we can’t see for mundane reasons.

  10. Joeru says

    That’s why I was late for work this morning. Dark matter causing a decrease in my acceleration. Can I get an excuse note from my physicist?

  11. dollhopf says


    there is also an “anomaly” in the behaviour of the Pioneer probe

  12. Bridh Hancock says

    Do we have here some anomalies being brough forth to be considered via-a-vis this Dark Matter explanation? Where were they hiding? In the details? Sometimes this seems to be a deliberately perverse universe.

    I think we should seek out some very-large Dark Matter particals because they should be easiler to find and they should have some effect on Standard Matter and Energy.

  13. bob says

    The larger particles are harder to find because it takes more energy to find them. We are not talking about visible matter here and we are not talking about something that is influenced by EM in any way. The heaviest particles are the most difficult to find in particle accelerators and the most massive supersymmetric particles (if they are proven to exist) will be hardest to detect, requiring the most energy.

  14. David says

    “I wonder if Dark matter is to space what Water is to the Ocean. Sort of a ubiquitous medium through which all things travel, but essentially undetectable to objects within the medium, though obviously it’s effects could be perceived.”

    Ah, what they used to call the ether. That would also help explain gravity. What is space was a solid substance. We wouldn’t see it, the same way fish don’t see the water they are in.

  15. dollhopf says

    Are there more anomalies to find in “ancient” trajectory data?

    Should experiments be conducted in which flight paths are measured with much more accuracy than usual?

    We have thousands of satellites in space and maybe their flight behaviour would show anomalies which are concealed in “insufficient” observation.

    Isn’t a fly by manoeuvre akin to the transit of a satellite on a highly excentric orbit through it’s perigee? Should more accurate radar surveillance not be able to find a faintest jump in orbital acceleration in every such orbital loop of every ordinary earth satellite?

  16. alphonso richardson says

    It probably isn’t a Dark Matter effect. Let’s just calm down, have a nice cup of cocoa, relax & maybe the answer will come.
    or at least the right kind of experiment

  17. mike says

    the earth-bound density is much higher than the solar system-bound density. – – this Earth (planetary) bound dark matter should be present around all the planets, possibility in proportion to barionic matter. This should be detectable be orbital anomalies of probes currently orbiting Mercury, Mars, Jupiter & Saturn

  18. dirk says

    Dark matter looks more like dark science to me. Why not focus on fundamental understanding of gravity and plasma (for instance) instead of adding more dimensions and funny names to exotic theoretical fabric.
    Atomic expansion (McCutcheon) predicts explains these anomalies from true fysical understanding point of view.

  19. greg your last name says

    i don’t know for sure, obviously, but I doubt it is dark matter. Maybe it could be the huge magnetic fields? This could explain acceleration and deceleration. I mean the things that orbit are of course machines. Perhaps they could be sped or slowed by the correct charge? Just an idea I thought of…

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