Feeds

Quickening satellite quickens pulses at ESA

Speeding Rosetta orbiter baffles astro-boffins

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Baffled Boffins at the European Space Agency (ESA) are hoping that today's Earth fly-by of the Rosetta satellite will shed light on a problem of significant gravity.

At 07:45GMT this morning, the ESA's Rosetta started its third fly-past of the Earth, looking for a gravitational sling-shot. This particular event is being closely watched by scientists on both sides of the Atlantic, as since 1990 a problem has been bothering eggheads at both NASA and ESA.

Their satellites appear sometimes to be speeding up beyond the predictions set out by the laws of Physics. Even more confusingly, the speed anomaly appears to be random, with many similar missions not experiencing it at all.

Previous NASA missions, including Pioneers 10 and 11, have been subject to the effect. Rosetta experienced the anomaly itself on its first fly-by in 2005, when it was found to have accelerated to 0.0018 m/s above what was expected. However, the satellite did not display such an effect on its second visit to us in 2007.

One could wonder as to whether such a minuscule change in the satellite's speed is worth getting worried about. But a paper released by ESA scientists describes how the satellite had to be manoeuvred in order to compensate for the worrying burst of speed, which could have led to serious consequences if left unchecked.

It is the inability to predict the anomaly that has got scientists into a tizzy, and the lack of a simple answer has led to numerous exotic ideas having been put forward. These include potential distortions to Earth's space-time fabric, the influence of dark matter and even the prospect of changes being required to the General theory of relativity.

These are obviously the sorts of things that slide-rule toting geeks dream of, and the space-botherers are suitably aflutter at the possibilities. In the words of ESA's lead flight dynamics specialist, Trevor Morley: "As it stands now, no one knows what's behind this - it really is a mystery. And your prediction as to whether Rosetta will experience any swing by speed anomaly at all on 13 November is as good as anyone's."

So the boffins are excited. They're not sure if there is anything to be excited about, but they are excited. ®

The Power of One Infographic

More from The Register

next story
World Solar Challenge contender claims new speed record
One charge sees Sunswift travel 500kms at over 100 km/h
SMELL YOU LATER, LOSERS – Dumbo tells rats, dogs... humans
Junk in the trunk? That's what people have
The Sun took a day off last week and made NO sunspots
Someone needs to get that lazy star cooking again before things get cold around here
Boffins discuss AI space program at hush-hush IARPA confab
IBM, MIT, plenty of others invited to fill Uncle Sam's spy toolchest, but where's Google?
Beancounters tell NASA it's too poor to fly planned mega-rocket
Space Launch System would need another $400m and a lot of time
Bad back? Show some spine and stop popping paracetamol
Study finds common pain-killer doesn't reduce pain or shorten recovery
Forty-five years ago: FOOTPRINTS FOUND ON MOON
NASA won't be back any time soon, sadly
prev story

Whitepapers

Top three mobile application threats
Prevent sensitive data leakage over insecure channels or stolen mobile devices.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications
Learn about the various considerations for defending mobile applications - from the application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies.
Build a business case: developing custom apps
Learn how to maximize the value of custom applications by accelerating and simplifying their development.