Since 1990, scientists and mission controllers at ESA and NASA have noticed that their spacecraft sometimes experience a strange variation in the amount of orbital energy they exchange with Earth during planetary swingbys.
These range from tidal effects peculiar to the near-Earth environment, atmospheric drag, or the pressure of radiation emitted or reflected by the Earth, to much more extreme possibilities, such as dark matter, dark energy or previously unseen variations in General Relativity, one of the most fundamental and well-tested theories of modern physics.
One American research team, led by ex-NASA scientist John Anderson, is even looking at the possibility that Earth's rotation may be distorting space-time - the fundamental fabric of our Universe - more than expected, thus affecting nearby spacecraft. But there is as yet no explanation how this could happen.Before even considering such exotic explanations, all the usual causes of spacecraft speed errors have been thoroughly eliminated by numerous investigations conducted over the years at both ESA and NASA. Software bugs, calculation errors, tracking uncertainties and other, much more mundane, causes have all been systematically eliminated or accounted for, leaving the speed anomaly maddeningly unexplained.
Jocelyne Landeau-Constantin | EurekAlert!
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