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Despite the discovery of other galaxies, black holes and other marvelous astronomical bodies, we keep returning to the orbits of planets to understand gravity at its most basic. Partly that’s simplicity: We’re inside the Solar System and can make measurements without spending billions of dollars or building virtual observatories the size of the whole planet. But that doesn’t mean we’ve exhausted all the ways to learn about gravity from the dance of the planets.
In a new paper in Physical Review Letters, University of Florida physicist Clifford Will showed that the upcoming BepiColombo space probe may be able to test an aspect of Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity, general relativity, that’s been out of reach so far. This effect comes from the gravity of other planets in the Solar System, leading to a tiny shift in Mercury’s orbit. But small doesn’t mean unimportant: If general relativity needs to be modified on this tiny level, the BepiColombo probe may be able to spot that discrepancy.