Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right or below. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.
The uncertainty of science: An orbital discrepancy between where engineers predict where Juno should be and where it actually is suggests it represents the recurrence of an anomaly that has been seen with numerous past planetary spacecraft.
During the 1970s when the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes were launched, visiting Jupiter and Saturn before heading off towards the edge of the Solar System, these probes both experienced something strange as they passed between 20 to 70 AU (Uranus to the Kuiper Belt) from the Sun.
Basically, the probes were both 386,000 km (240,000 mi) farther from where existing models predicted they would be. This came to be known as the “Pioneer anomaly“, which became common lore within the space physics community. While the Pioneer anomaly was resolved, the same phenomena has occurred many times since then with subsequent missions.
…Another mystery is that while in some cases the anomaly was clear, in others it was on the threshold of detectability or simply absent – as was the case with Juno‘s flyby of Earth in October of 2013. The absence of any convincing explanation has led to a number of explanations, ranging from the influence or dark matter and tidal effects to extensions of General Relativity and the existence of new physics.
However, none of these have produced a substantive explanation that could account for flyby anomalies.
The article describes in detail an effort to pin down the extent of Juno’s orbital anomaly, and to use that information to develop a model that would explain the phenomenon. Not surprisingly, they have not really come up with a comprehensive explanation. To me, the variability of the phenomenon suggests that it isn’t real, that it is either an unmeasured instrument effect or an ordinary component of solar system travel and orbital mechanics that programmers have not yet pinned down. For example, the gravitational effect of every planet and rock in the solar system will influence the path of a spacecraft, though with most that influence will be very small. It would not surprise me if this anomaly is simply the consequence of missing some of this influence.