Future interstellar travel is one step closer to being possible, due to the work of MU professor Sergei Kopeikin.
In July 2012 Kopeikin published his study “Celestial Ephemerides in an Expanding Universe.” Kopeikin’s study dealt with the Pioneer anomaly, a problem that arose in the 70s when the Pioneer spacecraft appeared to violate the law of gravity. Until Kopeikin, no one had been able to come up with a viable explanation.
“I really don’t like the word anomaly because … [when] we have an anomaly it means that we really don’t understand [physics] very well,” Kopeikin said. “So after we understand it there is no anomaly.”
Kopeikin works primarily by himself. His project on the Pioneer anomaly was in indirect collaboration between himself and a few other scientists. Graduate students helped him in the past, but due to the complex nature of his research there are few students who would be able to provide adequate assistance. Even if he had the money and the ability to search for an aid he believes it would be hard to find one at MU capable of working on his theories.
To conduct his research, Kopeikin deals with administrative processes. In order to receive funding he has to convince NASA and the National Science Foundation that his research is worth pursuing. Because he is a theorist, he is primarily able to get small grants through private organizations as well as MU.
Kopeikin attended Moscow State University where he studied general relativity. In 1986, he obtained a Ph.D. in relative astrophysics from the Space Research Institute in Moscow. In 1991, he achieved a Doctorate of Science from Moscow State University. After teaching in Japan and Germany, Kopeikin moved to Columbia, MO where he joined the MU Department of Physics and Astronomy as a professor. It was there that he worked on the Pioneer anomaly problem.
“You think that it’s like a strike of lightening in my brain,” Kopeikin said. “I was working quite a long time on this problem.”
It took more than 10 years of work to complete the research and calculations to publish his study. Though scientists have been able to come up with solutions for the Pioneer anomaly, the solutions must be able to be tested before they can be accepted. Because scientists cannot repeat the exact conditions that caused the anomaly, they must test their hypotheses using mathematical theory. This limits many of the solutions.
“There are many solutions, but not all of them can be tested. So the task was to find out the solutions which could be tested,” Kopeikin said.
Kopeikin came up with a solution he believed would explain the anomaly. The experiment was conducted and friends of Kopeikin processed data since processing the research required the use of a supercomputer and specialized software.
“I decided to see what will happen if I take that cosmological solution, or expressed it mathematically as a solution of Einstein’s equations, and extrapolate it to the solar system,” Kopeikin said. “The question was whether we shall see the presence still of the cosmological expansion or not and the result was yes, we can see it.”
Observations from Earth are limited to one viewpoint, so the Pioneer probes appeared to slow down. However, the probes did not really slow down. They only appeared to slow down because of the photons bouncing off the spacecraft.
According to a news release from MU, “Kopeikin’s research suggests that the photons move faster than expected from the Newtonian theory thus causing the appearance of deceleration, though the craft were actually traveling at the correct speed predicted by the theory.”
If this is true, it opens the door to the idea of interstellar travel in the future. It will be many years before the idea could be considered due to limitations on the speed of spacecrafts, but Kopeikin’s study and his continued research may one day help make it possible.
“My research, I hope, has great implications for deeper understanding of what is going on on all scales of the universe, large and small,” Kopeikin said.
Written by Alyson Bean and edited by Mollie Barnes.