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Space Science

Help Solve the Mystery of the Pioneer Anomaly 473

Posted by Hemos
from the put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is dept.
deglr6328 writes "Very soon, NASA will be dismantling and scrapping its only computer left which is able to access and process the data on its ancient 7- and 9-track magnetic tapes. "Who cares", you say? Well, the Planetary Society for one and they're hoping you might care as well. The data held on these (few hundred) tapes is no ordinary forgettable data, it is the complete archive of the first 15 years of all the data returned to Earth by the Pioneer spacecraft which were sent into interstellar space. This additional and thus far unexamined data (the data after 1988 is available and has already been examined) may hold the key to solving what is considered one of the top problems in physics today, the so called Pioneer anomaly, where the observed trajectory of these spacecraft (and a couple others) deviates noticeably from our very precise expectation. The reason for the anomaly may be as mundane as uneven radiation pressure or escaping thruster fuel or it may be as groundbreaking as a clue to completely new physics, perhaps related to dark matter or dark energy. The Planetary Society is planning on recovering this data and poring over it meticulously to look for something which may have been missed or hidden from current investigations into the phenomenon. They need money to do this, about $250,000, and are asking for donations to fund the project. You do not need to be a member to donate. There are no serious proposals to send any more spin-stabilized spacecraft on solar escape trajectories any time in the near future and this is probably the only tenable method we have to directly investigate this mystery in the interim."
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Help Solve the Mystery of the Pioneer Anomaly

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  • by yotto (590067) on Monday July 25, 2005 @10:58AM (#13156294) Homepage
    I'm not making a joke. Can't they just rip the tapes to a hard drive? This isn't Star Wars where you can't copy the "data tapes" after all.
  • Huh? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by pair-a-noyd (594371) on Monday July 25, 2005 @10:59AM (#13156308)
    This additional and thus far unexamined data

    Let me be the first to say WTF?!!

    This is inexcusable.
    It's insane to throw this project out the window..
    I hope people will step up to the plate on this. I for one will..

  • by scorp1us (235526) on Monday July 25, 2005 @10:59AM (#13156309) Journal
    That those several hundred tapes will fit on a $10 USB key? That's what 128 or 256MB these days?

  • If... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by fimbulvetr (598306) on Monday July 25, 2005 @10:59AM (#13156311)
    If we donate, and they reach the amount, will the data be open to everyone?
    That is absolutely critical, I will not donate unless I can see the data.
  • Funding (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fejikso (567395) on Monday July 25, 2005 @11:01AM (#13156330) Homepage
    $250,000 sounds like very little money compared to other NASA projects. Why can't my tax dollars go to these projects instead of the military?
  • So in short (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Rosco P. Coltrane (209368) on Monday July 25, 2005 @11:06AM (#13156392)
    The Planetary Society is planning on recovering this data and poring over it meticulously to look for something which may have been missed or hidden from current investigations into the phenomenon. They need money to do this, about $250,000, and are asking for donations to fund the project.

    Let me sum up: the USA boldly sends a probe in space, at a very great cost to taxpayers. Some decades later, NASA is forced to scrap the only computer that can access the unique (and very expensive) data collected by said probe, because the administration refuses to fund them properly.

    That's sad enough, but the saddest thing is: a bunch of passionate guys (the planetary society) are begging a measly quarter million bucks to save that priceless data, and the administration just stands there! That's like the cost of running a humvee for a week in Iraq or something. How does that look to the outside world? like a decrepit country where non-profit orgs are forced to take matters into their own hands to save their national treasures. Well done USA :-(
  • Re:Funding TP (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Camel Pilot (78781) on Monday July 25, 2005 @11:09AM (#13156413) Homepage Journal
    Yep, the military probably spends $250,000 for just ass wipe per day in Iraq.
  • Why not? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by quark007 (765762) on Monday July 25, 2005 @11:13AM (#13156456) Journal
    Why is there a big hoopla about Planetary society raising meager $250,000?

    You need money to carry out research.
    NASA obviously doesn't care much about basic sciences, and is quite busy wasting tax dollars [nasa.gov] in 'spectacular' but dumb and useless shuttle launches.

    Planetary society is atleast trying to make some sense. Why not help them?
  • But how huge? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by John Harrison (223649) <johnharrison@[ ]il.com ['gma' in gap]> on Monday July 25, 2005 @11:14AM (#13156465) Homepage Journal
    For instance, how much data is there? I've read some of the linked articles and I can't find any estimate of how many MB there might be. I would guess that there isn't a massive amount of data simply because the thing was designed within the limits of 1970s technology and they had to be able to record the data as it was coming in.

    Also, I would be shocked if NASA didn't document any of the file formats used. I've worked on a NASA project and they are all about documentation. In fact, I was writing a system used to document the shuttle booster production process.

  • Re:RTFF (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Otter (3800) on Monday July 25, 2005 @11:19AM (#13156499) Journal
    Thanks for pulling that out. It seems to me, though, that the key part is:
    Why does it cost $250,000 to recover the data? This seems like a lot.

    This amount enables us first to save the data from destruction, and then to support the complex analyses necessary to solve this mystery. We may well have to bring in more help from other eminent "celestial mechanicians" to provide fresh perspectives on the anomaly.

    Before giving them a cent, I'd really like to know a) how much the data retrieval costs and b) whether it really can't be done by EDS or someone else accustomed to dealing with ancient data files. I'm certainly not donating for them to "may well have to bring in more help".
  • by Omega Hacker (6676) <omega@nOSpAM.omegacs.net> on Monday July 25, 2005 @11:22AM (#13156524)

    What I utterly fail to understand is why NASA thinks they can get away with scrapping the only computer on the planet that can read the tapes, without spending a few days to read the tapes off first????? What kind of <oxymoron>brilliant NASA administrator<oxymoron> thought that was even remotely a good idea?

    AFAICT, They are fully aware of the fact that they have data that defines priceless, and they're just going to toss it in the trash along with the computer because they got tired of trying to figure it out.

    Now that's a FAQ for you, Planetary Society...

  • Rather qualified (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Richard W.M. Jones (591125) <rich.annexia@org> on Monday July 25, 2005 @11:22AM (#13156527) Homepage

    First, the data first must be recovered, validated, documented, and preliminary analyses must be done. After those tasks are completed (probably taking months to a year),

    Why not publish the data immediately, and qualify and expand it as they go along?

    Rich.

  • Re:But how huge? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by 'nother poster (700681) on Monday July 25, 2005 @11:25AM (#13156543)
    Quick math. 40 years at 16 bits per second, that's right, 16 BITS per second, is... 19.2MB of data.

    BTW, the Pioneer spacecraft were launched in the 1960's, not 70's, so even older tech.

  • Re:RTFF (Score:3, Insightful)

    by badmammajamma (171260) on Monday July 25, 2005 @11:25AM (#13156544)
    What's the point in recovering the data if they can't analyze it after they get it? The purpose of the project is to figure out why these space craft are not on the precise trajectories they have calculated -- it's not simply the gathering of old data.
  • Re:But how huge? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by putaro (235078) on Monday July 25, 2005 @11:31AM (#13156585) Journal
    Quick but wrong.

    16 bits * 3600 secs/hr = 57600 bits or 5760 bytes (I usually divide bps by 10 to get bytes because of things like parity and other protocol overhead)
    5760 bytes/hr * 24 hr = 195840 bytes/day
    195840bytes/day * 365 days/year = 71481600 bytes/year
    71 MB/year * 40 = 2840 MB

    Still a trivial amount by today's standards but I think you need to check those flashing fingers of yours on the calculator.
  • Re:So in short (Score:2, Insightful)

    by szaz (890101) on Monday July 25, 2005 @11:46AM (#13156680)
    Give it a bloody rest. Patriotism does not preclude disliking what your Country is doing. It doesn't mean 'finding the good in every situation, regarldess of how stupid the situation is'. This has ABSOLUTLY NOTHING TO DO WITH PATRIOTISM. Do you know how 'AMERICAN PATRIOTISM' comes accross in the wider world. Just give it a rest.
  • Re:RTFF (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Rich0 (548339) on Monday July 25, 2005 @11:50AM (#13156703) Homepage
    Yes, but the only urgent part of this project is recovering the data.

    In theory for far less you could simply recover the data, test that it was recovered properly, and then stick it on a webpage for anybody in the world to analyze.

    Their proposal is to solve the secrets of the universe for $250k. I might suggest that maybe the goal should be to simply transfer the data for $10k, and let somebody else pay for solving the secrets of the universe. The data recovery project is also far more likely to be successful...
  • Re:Funding (Score:2, Insightful)

    by KilobyteKnight (91023) <bjm@@@midsouth...rr...com> on Monday July 25, 2005 @11:50AM (#13156710) Homepage
    $250,000 sounds like very little money compared to other NASA projects. Why can't my tax dollars go to these projects instead of the military?

    Why can't my tax dollars stay in my pocket so I can decide how to spend them?

    Yes, I know, too many people think they know better than I do how my money needs to be spent... and they keep electing politicians willing to take it away from me to give to someone else.
  • by pixelpusher220 (529617) on Monday July 25, 2005 @11:50AM (#13156712)
    speaking of 'profit'...

    One thing that *most* charitable donations allow is designating which fund your money should go towards.

    Looking at the donation page, there's no reference as to what your donation goes toward. That means The Planetary Society is completely free to collect your money and use it for anything, not you intended purpose.

    Don't want to put a downer on a really great project but it would be nice if they let is specify *this* particular project, and not whatever they end up choosing later down the line...


  • Re:RTFF (Score:2, Insightful)

    by DavidTC (10147) <[slas45dxsvadiv. ... ] [neverbox.com]> on Monday July 25, 2005 @11:52AM (#13156731) Homepage
    The thing I care about, and what most of slashdot cares about, is saving the data. We could care less if it's analyzed now or ten years from now. Because we know that some scientist is going to come along and decide to do it when he has a theory about it. (In fact, it makes no sense to talk about 'analyzing' the data without a theory that roughly matches what happened. We already know the facts.)

    However, he can't do that if no one can get to the data because morons at NASA trashed the readers without copying the tapes first.

    We know they have the space. They can probably fit the entire data stream in the same space as ten minutes worth of data from any recent rover project.

    I don't know what the hell is wrong with NASA. This is just idiotic, or possibly the Planetary Society are a bunch of liars.

  • Re:So in short (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 25, 2005 @11:52AM (#13156735)
    Sheesh. What ever happened to patriotism? These guys are scientist patriots as far as I'm concerned. Here's what is truly sad: That the most patriotic feeling that this story could conjure up in you is the urge to bitch. Get off your ass and do something for your country. Contribute. To this project or to your country. Encourage others to do the same. Build up instead of tearing down. That's the lesson to be taken from this.

    Disagreeing with your the government's course of action is unpatriotic? That is just assinine. Sometimes standing on a soapbox and making your point of view heard is contributing. And it also encourages others to do the same. Granted, time would probably be better spent writing a senator or rep, but public dissent can still be a valuable contribution.

  • Re:But how huge? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by cnettel (836611) on Monday July 25, 2005 @11:55AM (#13156763)
    If Doppler data is relevant, and has been saved, this indicates that there can be quite a lot of metadata, in addition to the transmission itself.

    (I would imagine that 16 bps is the raw data rate from the probe?)

  • by exp(pi*sqrt(163)) (613870) on Monday July 25, 2005 @11:57AM (#13156774) Journal
    ...this? Get your damn wallet out!
  • Re:Funding TP (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ArsonSmith (13997) on Monday July 25, 2005 @12:04PM (#13156824) Journal
    It's funny because of all the cheese and peanutbutter they pack in MREs. You never shit after eating those things, and $250,000 is way to much to be spending on TP for a bunch of non-shitting soldiers.

  • Re:So in short (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CheshireCatCO (185193) on Monday July 25, 2005 @12:06PM (#13156845) Homepage
    Except that most of the useful data from the missions have been saved in other formats by now. I can go to the planetary data system and pull up a lot of Pioneer data right now if I wanted to.

    Not every data bit is equally valuable. In this case, the data was probably not originally considered very interesting so wasn't moved at the time. The fact that NASA hasn't copied the data already suggests to me that people near research didn't think that that data would be very helpful in the first place. So while I wish that they'd transfered the data long ago and I applaude the Planetary Society, I am not convinced that this is a horrible failing on NASA's part.
  • by sloepoke51 (657405) on Monday July 25, 2005 @12:15PM (#13156924)
    Ah, I see you haven't been around government projects very long. If the Planetary Society needs $250K, then NASA would need something like $250 million. You know, cost over runs, incompenent / lazy workers, the "it ain't my job" syndrome, etc.
  • by terrymr (316118) <terrymr@nOSpAm.gmail.com> on Monday July 25, 2005 @12:22PM (#13156988)
    Probably because publishing 10010100101001010100101001010100101010101001 .... isn't going to help you a whole lot without knowledge of where you are in the data stream, what instrument is telling you that etc.

    The validation, documentation & preliminary analysis steps are all about taking the raw data stream and making it into a useful set of values.
  • by saider (177166) on Monday July 25, 2005 @12:23PM (#13156994)
    I hope it works faster than realtime, or you'll be capturing data for the next 40 years.
  • Re:So in short (Score:2, Insightful)

    by DavidTC (10147) <[slas45dxsvadiv. ... ] [neverbox.com]> on Monday July 25, 2005 @12:23PM (#13156998) Homepage
    You, sir, are an fucking moron.

    He complained, quite rightly, that trashing irreplaceable data for lack of a quarter of a million dollars makes the US government look very very stupid.

    And in addition to appearing that way, it actually is very very stupid. (Do I need to mention what the two unsolved mysteries in physics lead to 100 years ago? Here's a hint: Einstein won a Nobel Peace Prize for solving one of them, but is most famous for solving the other one.) We should have teams of scientists working on figuring out this mysterious force.

    It is not, despite what you may think, 'unpatriotic' to point out when our government is doing stupid things. In fact, pointing out flaws in the current operating procedures of the government is the definition of patriotic in a republic like this one.

    When we see the people running the government are operating it incorrectly, we must point this out to them, and, if they fail to listen, we must replace this, this is our duty as Americans and citizens in a republic.

    Something that is not our duty is to care about what the outside world thinks about our internal politics.

    OTOH, maybe we should pay some attention to what they think about our politics in relation to them and other countries, simply because you can't have political relationships with other nations unless they come, too.

    Oh, wait, you're one of those people who think you owe your loyalty to your party, not your country. So while your party is in power, you translate party=country=government.

    Well, here's a clue. No citizen of the US owes anything to the US government. The US government works for us, we own it. There are places where governments are 'owed' loyaties, but the US is not one of them. Even soldiers do not swear allegience to the government, but to the Constitution, and there's a reason for that.

    And you can owe your party whatever you want, it is, obviously, a free country.

    But, like I said, what you owe your country is the best government you can give it. You can either do that by operating the government, or by chosing people to do so, and complaining when they fail.

  • Re:RTFF (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Pete (2228) on Monday July 25, 2005 @12:26PM (#13157030)
    I don't have anything particularly intelligent to say other than that I totally agree with you.

    That Planetary Society FAQ [planetary.org] does seem like... now what's the right word.... bullshit. So they came up with a suspiciously large and round number ($250K) but, as far as we've seen, no detailed budget behind it? No explanation of what happens to excess funds?

    For fuck's sake, Planetary Society people, it looks disturbingly like a "don't think just donate! QUICKLY!" campaign, built around fear of NASA apparently doing something extraordinarily stupid. There are just too many holes in the story, too much that makes no sense.

    I strongly suspect that they really just want to fund a few qualified people to work on the data full-time for 6-12 months. But if that's so, a little honesty would be appreciated. There's no fucking way I'd donate to support some ridiculous US salary, when I'm sure there are an enormous number of university-based people all around the world that would love to spend time analysing this kind of data and would do it for free.

    And yeah, it is kind of hazy regarding what information of value they hope to extract from this data. The slashdot writeup "...or it may be as groundbreaking as a clue to completely new physics, perhaps related to dark matter or dark energy" sounds like a nutcase trying to sell something.

  • Re:Funding (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 25, 2005 @12:27PM (#13157039)
    Why can't my tax dollars stay in my pocket so I can decide how to spend them?


    Because if you are anything like most of the population you wouldn't give any money to anyone, but would still bitch when the roads started to look like shit, and the schools start turning out even more McJob canidates. And yes, you do have to pay for schools even if you don't have kids, the education is not just for the benifit of the person getting it, but also for those around him who will benifit from what he does with it.
  • by some guy I know (229718) on Monday July 25, 2005 @12:37PM (#13157121) Homepage
    The problem is that the current format can only be understood by a particular type of obsolete computer that NASA is about to scrap.
    The operative word here is "about".
    The computer hasn't been scrapped yet, and they should take advantage of that.

    Why can't they use the obsolete equipment to read all of the tapes and transfer the raw data to a more modern medium?
    My totally uninformed guess is that a couple of hundred tapes should fit on a couple of DVDs, which can then be replicated as many times as needed.
    The hardware needed to communicate the info between the obsolete computer and an ordinary PC (say, over an RS-232 line or Centronics-style parallel port) should be relatively trivial to build.
    I don't see why the entire operation should cost a quarter of a million dollars.
    However, if they want to pay me that much, I'll do it.
  • Re:Funding (Score:2, Insightful)

    by modecx (130548) on Monday July 25, 2005 @12:44PM (#13157212)
    $250,000 is such a pathetic amount of money distributed across the 250 million or so people that our country collects tax from that it's just not funny. Is the cost of a thousandth of a cent too much to preserve this historic data to you?

    If you want to be all upset about taxes, that's fine... I don't blame you--nobody likes taxes! However, This is small fish compared to pretty much everything else out there. It's not like politicians regularly use tens of thousand times this amount to go to lavish conventions and other inane stuff, or anything.

    This is important, and actually has the potential to increase our understanding of the universe--unlike much that the government does at greater expense. This is hardly a blip on the radar. Crow sized, even.
  • Re:Funding (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jafac (1449) on Monday July 25, 2005 @01:29PM (#13157638) Homepage
    Because defense spending is a necessary and Constitutionally-justified federal espense. Space exploration is not.

    Think of space exploration as far-sighted defense spending. Otherwise, think of how the world would be today if, in the 1940's and 1950's, the US did no ballistic missile research at all, and let the Soviets take LEO, Geosynchronous Orbit, the Moon, and everything else.

    Every dollar invested into the space program, public education, interstate highways, power grids, even welfare and medicaid, is a dollar well-spent towards shoring up national defense. Just not in as direct a way as you'd like.

    What is money POORLY invested in defense or national security, is $200 Billion to invade a country, destabilize it's govenrment so it can be taken over by Iran. http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2005/07/21/iran/ index_np.html [salon.com]
  • by Bloke down the pub (861787) on Monday July 25, 2005 @01:30PM (#13157645)
    The first two words of TFA are "very soon"m, which implies that at this moment in time NASA are able to do it. Why can't they just burn it to $other_media before they scrap the old machine? It's not rocket science.
  • Harware Hacking (Score:2, Insightful)

    by dosboss (92049) on Monday July 25, 2005 @01:48PM (#13157795) Journal
    Here's a project for ya:

    - Go to eBay [ebay.com] and buy one. (wait for the DRMO [dla.mil] auction for the 7-track unit)
    - Build a box to acess the drive - not real hard for a good hardware hacker
    - build a Linux driver to access it (presuming no driver exists already for the card you connect it to)
    - get the tapes via FOIA [rcfp.org]

    Conclusion: get the data for next to nothing.

    Oh, yeah, one last step:

    - ship the 245,000 smackers you didn't use to my house, in .9999 gold coins please.
  • Re:Funding (Score:3, Insightful)

    by brunes69 (86786) <slashdot@nosPam.keirstead.org> on Monday July 25, 2005 @02:33PM (#13158342) Homepage

    Why can't my tax dollars stay in my pocket so I can decide how to spend them?

    Because if society worked this way, human greed would prevail and services such as paved roads, public parks, snow removal, and disaster relief would not exist.

    Greed is good for some things (see capitalism), but a modern society can not succeed on greed alone, no mater what staunch libertarians would have you believe.

    Going all the way to that extreme won't get you any further ahead than going all the way to the other extreme (marxism).

  • by Lawrence_Bird (67278) on Monday July 25, 2005 @02:44PM (#13158471) Homepage
    The problem is probably less to do with the need for a 9 track
    and more to do with the physical quality of the tape. They
    tend to basically turn to dust because they are so brittle and
    require special handling if they can be used at all
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 25, 2005 @02:45PM (#13158491)
    "Will you please RTFA. It clearly says 7 and 9 track tapes."

    What I don't understad is the NASA still has serviceable parts able to read those tapes. Why then they just move the tapes to another support?

    And then, if those boxes are going to be decomissioned why that charity needs the money? They can just ask NASA to give the boxes and the tapes to them so they can read it!
  • Re:Funding (Score:3, Insightful)

    by iabervon (1971) on Monday July 25, 2005 @03:30PM (#13158989) Homepage Journal
    Why can't my tax dollars stay in my pocket so I can decide how to spend them?

    Because then you'd have to make individual one-dollar payments to a couple hundred organizations that you're likely to consider worthwhile if you were to look into them, and they'd have to spend a lot of money advertizing their worthiness to you. Having a government you pay taxes to which pays departments is an O(n) process, while having individuals pay them directly is O(n^2). If you think your taxes are complicated now, just think how much it would suck if you had to essentially work out the federal budget yourself each year.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 25, 2005 @03:50PM (#13159221)
    Of course you got axed, recovery of the test data after failure was going to be an additional contract for the firm. By having constructed such on your own time, you cost the company revenue.
  • 7 Track Tapes (Score:2, Insightful)

    by RagingChipmunk (646664) on Monday July 25, 2005 @04:22PM (#13159605) Homepage
    After reading TFA its not clear if the original data is in analog format or digital. It seems that most readers assume its digital format, and thats what I was assuming too. If it were purely digital, then transferring the data to a new format would be a reasonably easy migration.

    I suspect its in analog format - probably the original signal recordings. Which would make more sense for the expense of analyzing it - because you would be very interested in the phase relationships between different channels of data and their doppler shifts. Its the analog waveforms that could give insights into the timing effects over long distances.

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