Every so often, engineers send a spacecraft in Earth’s general direction to pick up a speed boost before heading elsewhere. But sometimes, something strange happens — the spacecraft’s speed varies in an unexpected way. Even stranger, this variation happens only during some Earth flybys.
“We detected the flyby anomaly during Rosetta’s first Earth visit in March 2005,” stated Trevor Morley, a flight dynamics specialist at the European Space Agency’s European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany.
“Frustratingly, no anomaly was seen during Rosetta’s subsequent Earth flybys in 2007 and 2011. This is a real cosmic mystery that no one has yet figured out.”
The phenomenon has been noticed in several spacecraft (both from ESA and NASA) since 1990. NASA’s NEAR asteroid spacecraft in January 1998 had the largest change, of 13 millimeters (0.5 inches) a second. The smallest variations, with NASA’s Saturn-bound Cassini in 1999 and Mercury-pointing MESSENGER in 2005, were below the threshold of measurement.
ESA won’t even speculate on what’s going on. “The experts are stumped,” the agency says in a press release.
Those experts, however, do have some ideas on how to track that down. ESOC plans to watch Juno’s flyby using a 35 meter deep-space dish in Malargüe, Argentina, as well as a 15-meter dish in Perth, Australia
“The stations will record highly precise radio-signal information that will indicate whether Juno speeds up or slows down more or less than predicted by current theories,” ESA states.
What do you think is going on? Let us know in the comments!
Imagine plunking your spacecraft down on an asteroid. The gravity would be small. The surface would be uneven. The space rock might be noticeably spinning, complicating your maneuvering.
Humans have done it with robotic spacecraft before. The first time was in 2001, when NASA made a stunning landing with the NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft on Eros — using a craft that was not even designed to reach the surface. A new study, however, portrays getting close to these space rocks as perhaps even more hazardous than previously thought.
An experiment done aboard a “Vomit-Comet” like airplane, which simulates weightlessness, suggests that dust particles on comets and asteroids may be able to feel changes in their respective positions across far larger distances than on Earth.
“We see examples of force-chains everywhere. When you pick an orange from a pile in a supermarket, some come away easily, but others bring the whole lot crashing down. Those weight-bearing oranges are part of a force-chain in the pile,” stated Naomi Murdoch, a researcher at the Higher Institute of Aeronautics and Space (Institut Supérieur de l’Aéronautique et de l’Espace) in Toulouse, France.
“One important aspect of such chains is that they give a granular material a ‘memory’ of forces that they have been exposed to. Reversing the direction of a force can effectively break the chain, making the pile less stable.”
The Asteroid Experiment Parabolic Flight Experiment (AstEx) experiment was designed by Murdoch, Open University’s Ben Rozitis, and several collaborators from The Open University, the Côte d’Azur Observatory and the University of Maryland. It had a cylinder with glass beads inside of it, as well as a rotating drum at the heart.
In 2009, when they were postgraduate students, Murdoch and Rozitis took their contraption on board an Airbus A300, which flew parabolas to simulate microgravity while the aircraft falls from its greatest height.
During this time, the inner drum spun up for 10 seconds and then the rotational direction was reversed. What happened was tracked by high-speed cameras. Later, the researchers analyzed the movement of the beads with a particle-tracking program.
The researchers found that particles at the edge of the cylinder (the closest analog to low-gravity environments) moved more than those in similar environments on Earth. Those closer to the center, however, were not as greatly affected.
“A lander touching down on the surface on one side of a small, rubble-pile asteroid could perhaps cause an avalanche on the other side, by long-range transmission of forces through chains It would, however, depend on the angle and location of the impact, as well as the history of the surface – what kind of memories the regolith holds,” said Murdoch.
On Tuesday, January 31, asteroid 433 Eros will come closer to Earth than it has in 37 years, traveling across the night sky in the constellations Leo, Sextans and Hydra. At its closest pass of 16.6 million miles (26.7 million km) the relatively bright 21-mile (34-km) -wide asteroid will be visible with even modest backyard telescopes, approaching magnitude 8, possibly even 7. It hasn’t come this close since 1975, and won’t do so again until 2056!
433 Eros is an S-type asteroid, signifying a composition of magnesium silicates and iron. S-types make up about 17 percent of known asteroids and are some of the brightest, with albedos (reflectivity) in the range of 0.10 – 0.22. S-type asteroids are most common in the inner asteroid belt and, as in the case of Eros, can even pass within the orbit of Mars.
Occasionally Eros’ orbit brings it close enough to Earth that it can be spotted with amateur telescopes. 2012 will be one of those times.
Eros was discovered on August 13, 1898, by astronomers Carl Gustav Witt in Berlin and Auguste Charlois in Nice. When Eros’ orbit was calculated it was seen to be an elongated oval that brought it within the orbit of Mars. This allowed for good observations of the bright asteroid, and eventually led to more accurate estimates of the distance from Earth to the Sun.
In February 2000 NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft approached Eros, established orbit and made a soft landing on its surface, the first mission ever to do so. While in orbit NEAR took over 160,000 images of Eros’ surface, identifying over 100,000 craters, a million house-sized boulders (give or take a few) and helped researchers conclude that the cashew-shaped Eros is a solid object rather than a “rubble pile” held together by gravity.
Studying pristine objects like Eros gives insight into the earliest days of our solar system, and also allows scientists to better understand asteroid compositions… which is invaluable information when deciding how best to avoid any potential future impacts.
Although Eros will be making a “close” approach to Earth on Jan. 31/Feb. 1, there is no danger of a collision. It will still remain at a very respectable distance of about 16.6 million miles (26.7 million km), or 0.178 AU. This is over 80 times the distance of the much smaller 2005 YU55, which safely passed within a lunar orbit radius on November 8, 2011.
If you do want to try viewing 433 Eros as it passes, you can find a diagram charting its path from Sky and Telescope here. According to the Sydney Observatory’s website “the coordinates on 31 January (from the BAA 2012 Handbook) are 10 hours 33 minutes 19.0 seconds RA and -4° 48’ 23” declination. On 10 February the RA is 10 hours 20 minutes 27.6 seconds and the declination is -14° 38’ 49 seconds.”
Thanks to Skyscrapers, Inc., for a report on 433 Eros by Glenn Chaple. Skyscrapers, Inc. is an amateur astronomy society in Rhode Island that operates the Seagrave Observatory, whose centerpiece is a beautiful 8 1/4″ Alvan Clark telescope built in 1878. I saw Halley’s Comet through that telescope in 1986 and have been hooked on astronomy ever since.