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Adventures in time (and space)

Written by  Sunday, 12 July 2020 15:16
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Galileos measure Einsteinian time dilation

Every day, antennas on Earth send and receive signals from spacecraft exploring the Solar System, often millions of kilometres away. These signals take time to arrive and to return from their journey through space and time, with interesting consequences for those who them.

The Sun is so massive it not only traps planets in orbit, but bends the path of light around it
The Sun is so massive it not only traps planets in orbit, but bends the path of light around it

“Not only do we need to deal with delays as light travels through space, which can take up to 16 minutes to get from Earth to the Sun and vice versa, we also need to consider what happens to time” says Daniel Lakey, one of the Solar Orbiter flight controllers.

“As Solar Orbiter closes in on the massive gravitational pull of the Sun, it will start to feel the effects of ‘gravitational time dilation’.”

This curious effect means that the closer a clock is to a gravitational source, the slower time passes. These relativistic effects are fortunately very small, meaning that an ‘ideal’ clock would lose about three seconds compared to a clock on Earth over 10 years of the mission.

However, no clock is ideal. Most clocks experience a certain amount of erratic time drifting, small defects that have more noticeable effects. These, as well as the effects of time dilation, are corrected through regular time re-synchronisation from the Flight Control Team, with the aid One Way Light Time calculations from Flight Dynamics.

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