A Low Cost Space Lane to Mars

Down the road a bit, we Earthlings will become Marslings. Before the first colony is  established on Mars quite a bit of work will be done to prepare the way for the first settlers . Currently there are thousands of really bright people working on the challenges of reaching Mars. A recent article on ArXiv (at the Cornell University Library) proposes a new way to get there and the best part is that it allows us to launch a mission at anytime and cuts 25% of fuel requirement to do so.

Researchers Edward Belbruno and co-author Francesco Topputo have published a paper detailing this new path to Mars, and the physics behind it. The paper Earth–Mars Transfers with Ballistic Capture , provides a detailed proposal that offers a number of advantages for Mars missions.

Quoting the authors,

This includes substantially lower Dv at higher altitudes, flexibility of launch period from the Earth, gentler capture process, first transferring to locations far from Mars offering interesting new approaches to Mars itself, being ballistically captured into capture ellipses for a predetermined number of cycles about Mars, and the ability to transfer to lower altitudes with relatively little penalty. The initial capture locations along Mars orbit may be of interest for operational purposes.


It is interesting to note that this method has the advantage of allowing a mission to launch at anytime without the usual requirement of waiting for the planet to be in the right position in its orbit using the Hohmann transfer method. This sets up the ballistic capture transfer method as the go to approach for Mars supply missions as they could be launched monthly, creating a supply chain to Mars.

For manned missions this method does require 4-8 months of added time to a typical mission, and this extended mission requirement comes with a host of concerns such as the radiation exposure, added on-board supplies for the travelers, and of course the stress of spending long periods of time in the tight confines of the spacecraft.

While it may not be the best option for manned flight, the ballistic capture transfer method could work well for supplying the Marslings.  The establishment of supply lines to support a colony is nothing new. What is new is the challenge of doing it in space. We know how wagon trains supplied the early settlers of America, the next step is just a planet away.

Ad Astra!

ArXiv: Earth–Mars Transfers with Ballistic Capture

Scientific American: A New Way to Reach Mars

Geminid Meteor Shower

It’s the most wonderful time of the year — for spotting a Geminid meteor! The 2014 Geminid meteor shower is forecast to be a lively meteor shower with great views in the skies over Earth. The week of Dec. 8 is a good window for Geminid-watching, but the night of Dec. 13-14 is the anticipated peak. Best viewing will be in dark sky locations, away from city lights.

Geminids are pieces of debris from an object called 3200 Phaethon. Long thought to be an asteroid, Phaethon is now classified as an extinct comet. Basically it is the rocky skeleton of a comet that lost its ice after too many close encounters with the sun. Earth runs into a stream of debris from 3200 Phaethon every year in mid-December, causing meteors to fly from the constellation Gemini. When the Geminids first appeared in the early 19th century, shortly before the U.S. Civil War, the shower was weak and attracted little attention. There was no hint that it would ever become a major display.

On Dec. 13, Cooke and a team of astronomers from Marshall Space Flight Center will host an overnight NASA web chat from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. CST, answering questions about the Geminid meteor shower. The Geminids are expected to peak just before dawn on Dec. 14, with a predicted peak rate of 100 to 120 meteors per hour.

To join the webchat on Dec. 13, log into the chat page at: http://www.nasa.gov/connect/chat/geminids_2014.html

A few minutes before the chat, a chat window will be active at the bottom of the page.

In addition, a Ustream feed from a telescope at Marshall will be available: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/nasa-msfc

New Horizons at Pluto’s Doorstep

The Kuiper Belt object, Pluto since its discovery in 1930 has revealed little about its characteristics. The NASA/JPL probe New Horizons is now one month away from the start of mission observations of the dwarf planet.

New Horizons has been travelling to Pluto for nearly 9 years. After  a journey of more than 8 years the spacecraft was wakened from hibernation for the last time on December 6th, and is now in the process of preparing all of its sensors for active science operations.

The hope of the mission team is that all of the sensors will work flawlessly over the next 12 months as the spacecraft approaches Pluto, and its 5 moons. Scheduled to flyby Pluto within 7700 miles in July, the craft is currently 130 million miles from its encounter.

The team of scientist and Post Doc researchers hope to answer many questions about Pluto such as:

  • Is it a planet?
  • Are there more than 5 moons?
  • Does it have active surface features?
  • What does it look like?
  • What type of atmosphere does it have?
  • Does it have seasons?

There is concern that as the craft approaches the tiny planet and its moons that obstacles might lay ahead  that could destroy the craft. The team will be performing sensor studies of the path ahead to identify potential obstacles such as dust, tiny debris the size of pebbles, or other potential hazards. If anything is found the craft has enough fuel onboard to adjust the trajectory and avoid hazards.

At the completion of the flyby, the craft will continue to fly on into the Kuiper belt. The Hubble Telescope helped identify several potential targets for New Horizons over the summer. The mission team has yet to pick the follow on target, preferring to stay focused on the mission at hand. Congress would need to allocate funding for the follow on mission.

To learn more about the mission and its current location in space goto:

New Horizons Mission Page





Asteroid Types

  • Asteroids; traditionally, most have been bodies in the inner Solar System.[6]
    • Main-belt asteroids, those following roughly circular orbits between Mars and Jupiter. These are the original and best-known group of asteroids or minor planets.
    • Near-Earth asteroids, those whose orbits take them inside the orbit of Mars. Further subclassification of these, based on orbital distance, is used:[12]
      • Aten asteroids, those that have semi-major axes of less than one Earth orbit and aphelion (furthest distance from the Sun) greater than 0.983 AU.
      • Amor asteroids are those near-Earth asteroids that approach the orbit of the Earth from beyond, but do not cross it. Amor asteroids are further subdivided into four subgroups, depending on where their semimajor axis falls between Earth’s orbit and the asteroid belt;
      • Apollo asteroids are those asteroids with a semimajor axis greater than Earth’s, while having a perihelion distance of 1.017 AU or less. Like Aten asteroids, Apollo asteroids are Earth-crossers.
      • Apohele asteroids orbit inside of Earth’s perihelion distance and thus are contained entirely within the orbit of Earth.
    • Earth trojans, asteroids sharing Earth’s orbit and gravitationally locked to it. As of 2011, the only one known is 2010 TK7.[13]
    • Mars trojans, asteroids sharing Mars’s orbit and gravitationally locked to it. As of 2007, eight such asteroids are known.[14]
    • Jupiter trojans, asteroids sharing Jupiter’s orbit and gravitationally locked to it. Numerically they are estimated to equal the main-belt asteroids.
  • Distant minor planets; an umbrella term for minor planets in the outer Solar System.
    • Centaurs, bodies in the outer Solar System between Jupiter and Neptune. They have unstable orbits due to the gravitational influence of the giant planets, and therefore must have come from elsewhere, probably outside Neptune.[15]
    • Neptune trojans, bodies sharing Neptune’s orbit and gravitationally locked to it. Although only a handful are known, there is evidence that Neptune trojans are more numerous than either the asteroids in the asteroid belt or the Jupiter trojans.[16]
    • Trans-Neptunian objects, bodies at or beyond the orbit of Neptune, the outermost planet.