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Advancing tests of relativistic gravity via laser ranging to Phobos

  • Author(s): Turyshev, Slava G.
  • Farr, William
  • Folkner, William M.
  • Girerd, André R.
  • Hemmati, Hamid
  • Murphy, Thomas W.
  • Williams, James G.
  • Degnan, John J.
  • et al.

Phobos Laser Ranging (PLR) is a concept for a space mission designed to advance tests of relativistic gravity in the solar system. PLR’s primary objective is to measure the curvature of space around the Sun, represented by the Eddington parameter γ, with an accuracy of two parts in 107, thereby improving today’s best result by two orders of magnitude. Other mission goals include measurements of the time-rate-of-change of the gravitational constant, G and of the gravitational inverse square law at 1.5-AU distances—with up to two orders-of-magnitude improvement for each. The science parameters will be estimated using laser ranging measurements of the distance between an Earth station and an active laser transponder on Phobos capable of reaching mm-level range resolution. A transponder on Phobos sending 0.25-mJ, 10-ps pulses at 1 kHz, and receiving asynchronous 1-kHz pulses from earth via a 12-cm aperture will permit links that even at maximum range will exceed a photon per second. A total measurement precision of 50 ps demands a few hundred photons to average to 1-mm (3.3 ps) range precision. Existing satellite laser ranging (SLR) facilities—with appropriate augmentation—may be able to participate in PLR. Since Phobos’ orbital period is about 8 h, each observatory is guaranteed visibility of the Phobos instrument every Earth day. Given the current technology readiness level, PLR could be started in 2011 for launch in 2016 for 3 yr of science operations. We discuss the PLR’s science objectives, instrument, and mission design. We also present the details of science simulations performed to support the mission’s primary objectives.

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