Tag Archives: orbital mechanics

Engineers hope Juno’s Earth flyby yesterday will help solve a mystery seen in previous flybys by unmanned probes.

The uncertainty of science: Engineers hope Juno’s Earth flyby yesterday will help solve a mystery seen in previous flybys by unmanned probes.

Since 1990, mission controllers at ESA and NASA have noticed that their spacecraft sometimes experience a strange variation in the amount of orbital energy they pick up from Earth during flybys, a technique routinely used to fling satellites deep into our Solar System. The unexplained variation is noticed as a tiny difference in the expected speed gained (or lost) during the passage.

The variations are extremely small: NASA’s Jupiter probe ended up just 3.9 mm/s faster than expected when it swung past Earth in December 1990. The largest variation– a boost of 13.0 mm/s – was seen with NASA’s NEAR asteroid craft in January 1998. Conversely, the differences during swingbys of NASA’s Cassini in 1999 and Messenger in 2005 were so small that they could not be confirmed.

The experts are stumped.

It is likely that these small variations are related in some way with simple engineering and not some unknown feature of gravity. Nonetheless, it remains a mystery.

Capturing an asteroid into Earth orbit

orbital path after asteroid capture

Want to mine an asteroid? Rather than travel to it with all their mining equipment, three Chinese scientists have proposed a better way. In a paper published today on the Los Alamos astro-ph preprint website, they have calculated the energy required to shift the orbits of the six thousand near-Earth asteroids and place them in Earth orbit for later mining. Of these, they found 46 asteroids that had the potential for such an operation, and two likely candidates for a space mission. One 30-foot-wide asteroid, 2008EA9, will actually be in the right place for this technique in 2049. As they write,

It can be seen that the velocity increment of the 2008EA9 is relatively small (-1.00km/s) and it will very close approach [approximately 645,000 miles] to the Earth in [February] 2049. Moreover the size of the NEO 2008EA9 is very small so that the capturing of it is relatively easy.

The real problem, of course, is adding that small “velocity increment” to the asteroid.
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Bad news for climate modelers

A new analysis of the orbits of Ceres and Vesta says that in a surprisingly short time those orbits become chaotic and therefore unpredictable. More significantly, those orbits interact with the Earth’s and also make its long term orbit chaotic and unpredictable. From the abstract:

Although small, Ceres and Vesta gravitationally interact together and with the other planets of the Solar System. Because of these interactions, they are continuously pulled or pushed slightly out of their initial orbit. Calculations show that, after some time, these effects do not average out. Consequently, the bodies leave their initial orbits and, more importantly, their orbits are chaotic, meaning that we cannot predict their positions. The two bodies also have a significant probability of impacting each other, estimated at 0.2% per billion year. Last but not least, Ceres and Vesta gravitationally interact with the Earth, whose orbit also becomes unpredictable after only 60 million years. This means that the Earth’s eccentricity, which affects the large climatic variations on its surface, cannot be traced back more than 60 million years ago. This is indeed bad news for Paleoclimate studies. [emphasis mine]

The scientists found that it became impossible to calculate the orbits of the two largest asteroids after only several ten thousand years. They also found that “numerous asteroids in the main belt will behave in the same way with . . . much more chaotic behavior than previously thought.” Worse, the possibility of collisions was far higher than ever thought. Ceres and Vesta have a 1 in 500 chance of colliding with each other every billion years, while other asteroids have chances as low as 1 in 1000.

The importance of this discovery, which still needs to be confirmed by other researchers, cannot be understated.
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