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Utilizing Minor Planets to Assess the Gravitational Field in the Outer Solar System

Status Report From: arXiv.org e-Print archive
Posted: Thursday, April 21, 2005

image Astrophysics, abstract
astro-ph/0504367

From: Gary Page [view email]
Date: Sun, 17 Apr 2005 17:04:48 GMT   (32kb)
Utilizing Minor Planets to Assess the Gravitational Field in the Outer Solar System
Authors: Gary L. Page, David S. Dixon, John F. Wallin
The Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft have been precisely tracked for over thirty years as they have crossed and then departed the solar system. When they passed a distance of 20 AU from the sun, both probes exhibited a systematic error in their trajectories that can be interpreted as a constant acceleration of 8.74e-8 cm/sec/sec towards the sun. This anomalous acceleration has come to be referred to as the Pioneer Effect, and although spacecraft systematics are its most likely explanation, there have been no convincing arguments that that is indeed the case. The alternative, that the Pioneer Effect represents a real phenomenon, is very appealing for many reasons. What is lacking is a means of measuring the effect, its variation, its potential anisotropies, and its region of influence. The present paper shows that minor planets provide an observational vehicle for investigating the gravitational field in the outer solar system, and thus provide a means of measuring the Pioneer Effect and potentially to either support or refute its existence as a real phenomenon. Minor planets can be used for this purpose because they have a large mass and are large and bright enough to be observed for useful intervals. Thus, even if the Pioneer Effect does not represent a new physical phenomenon, minor planets can be used to probe the gravitational field in the outer solar system. Since there are very few intermediate range tests of gravity at the multiple AU distance scale, this is a worthwhile endeavor in its own right. However, depending upon the characteristics of the measurements, it might even be possible to differentiate between the predictions of alternative explanations for the Pioneer Effect.
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