Astronomers Use Radio Signals for New Way to Weigh Planets


Finding the mass of other planets is tricky, and usually is done by measuring the orbits of their moons or of spacecraft flying past them. But an international group of astronomers have found a new way to weigh planets, and they have now weighed entire planetary systems using radio signals from pulsars. “This is first time anyone has weighed entire planetary systems — planets with their moons and rings,” said team leader Dr. David Champion of the Max-Planck-Institut fuer Radioastronomie in Bonn, Germany. “And we’ve provided an independent check on previous results, which is great for planetary science.”

Champion says measuring the masses of planets in this new way could feed into data needed for future space missions. Because mass creates gravity, and a planet’s gravitational pull determines the orbit of anything that goes around it — both the size of the orbit and how long it takes to complete – it will help more accurate navigation for future missions.

The new method is based on corrections astronomers make to signals from pulsars, small spinning stars that deliver regular ‘blips’ of radio waves.

The Earth is traveling around the Sun, and this movement affects exactly when pulsar signals arrive here. To remove this effect, astronomers calculate when the pulses would have arrived at the Solar System’s center of mass, or barycenter, around which all the planets orbit. Because the arrangement of the planets around the Sun changes all the time, the barycenter moves around too. To work out its position, astronomers use both a table (called an ephemeris) of where all the planets are at a given time, and the values for their masses that have already been measured. If these figures are slightly wrong, and the position of the barycenter is slightly wrong, then a regular, repeating pattern of timing errors appears in the pulsar data.

“For instance, if the mass of Jupiter and its moons is wrong, we see a pattern of timing errors that repeats over 12 years, the time Jupiter takes to orbit the Sun,” said Dr. Dick Manchester of CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science. But if the mass of Jupiter and its moons is corrected, the timing errors disappear. This is the feedback process that the astronomers have used to determine the planets’ masses.

Data from a set of four pulsars have been used to weigh Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn with their moons and rings. Most of these data were recorded with CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope in eastern Australia, with some contributed by the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico and the Effelsberg telescope in Germany. The masses were consistent with those measured by spacecraft. The mass of the Jovian system, .0009547921(2) times the mass of the Sun, is significantly more accurate than the mass determined from the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft, and consistent with, but less accurate than, the value from the Galileo spacecraft.

The new measurement technique is sensitive to a mass difference of two hundred thousand million million tons — just 0.003% of the mass of the Earth, and one ten-millionth of Jupiter’s mass.

“In the short term, spacecraft will continue to make the most accurate measurements for individual planets, but the pulsar technique will be the best for planets not being visited by spacecraft, and for measuring the combined masses of planets and their moons,” said CSIRO’s Dr. George Hobbs, another member of the research team.

Repeating the measurements would improve the values even more. If astronomers observed a set of 20 pulsars over seven years they’d weigh Jupiter more accurately than spacecraft have. Doing the same for
Saturn would take 13 years.

“Astronomers need this accurate timing because they’re using pulsars to hunt for gravitational waves predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity”, said Professor Michael Kramer, head of the ‘Fundamental Physics in Radio Astronomy’ research group at the Max-Planck-Institut fuer Radioastronomie. “Finding these waves depends on spotting minute changes in the timing of pulsar signals, and so all other sources of timing error must be accounted for, including the traces of Solar System planets.”

Astronomers from Australia, Germany, the UK, Canada and the USA are involved in this project.

Paper: Measuring the Mass of Solar System Planets Using Pulsar Timing

Source: Max Planck

7 Replies to “Astronomers Use Radio Signals for New Way to Weigh Planets”

  1. This is one of those things I wish I had thought of. This is an interesting device-procedure.


  2. A beautiful idea – using the errors from one measurement to make another measurement. I bet the trigonometry is fun – I’m off to read the paper and will report back!

  3. Phooey – not a cosine or eigenvalue in sight. They ducked it and used a Taylor series 🙂

  4. You make a good point anyway Rob_Bowman. This is just the sort of technique that would have occurred to Archimedes, if he were knocking around today, and he would have offered a geometric proof.

  5. “Data from a set of four pulsars have been used to weigh Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn with their moons and rings.”

    Why is Earth not in the list?

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