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New planet freeway could transform space travel

Artist's concept of interplanetary superhighway
Artist's concept of interplanetary superhighway  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- An elaborate matrix of paths scattered throughout the entire solar system can dramatically cut the amount of power needed for spacecraft to explore our celestial neighborhood, NASA announced this week.

Conventional deep space missions use the gravity of celestial bodies one at a time, using nearby planets or moons or the sun to slingshot themselves farther along on their journeys.

But craft using the space freeway, which resembles a complex arrangement of tunnels and passageways, take advantage of previously untapped gravitational relationships between the planets and moons.

"We usually think of space as being empty but it really isn't, in the sense that the gravity of the sun is pulling, the Earth and moon and other objects are constantly pulling," said Martin Lo of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"Our theory has refined to the point where we can actually compute these trajectories and we find patterns going around the planets and the sun. This is what we call the interplanetary superhighway, and we can use it in many different ways," he said.

In various regions of our solar system, competing gravitational forces virtually cancel each other out, leaving corridors though which spacecraft can travel with little effort, according to Lo.

Close-up of planet freeway 

"They make up some of the most efficient, ultra low-energy pathways, which are generated by the gravity of all the planets and moons of the solar system."

Relying on a branch of mathematics called chaos theory, his calculations might seem baffling to the lay person, but enthused colleagues describe them as elegant and promising.

"Lo's work has led to breakthroughs in simplifying mission concepts for human and robotic exploration between low-Earth orbit," said Doug Cooke of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

"These simplifications result in fewer space vehicles needed for a broad range of mission options," Cooke said.

To calculate sections of the highway, Lo mapped all the possible flight paths through the space regions where the gravity of varying bodies are in complete balance.

Genesis on a Boeing rocket before its August launch
Genesis on a Boeing rocket before its August launch  

"Like threads twisted together to form a rope, the possible flight paths formed tubes in space," JPL said in a statement.

Lo has already plotted the course for one mission in progress, using a "local" stretch of the road, taking into account the tugging contest between the Earth and moon.

"The savings on the fuel translates into a better and cheaper mission," said Lo of NASA's Genesis spacecraft, which launched last August on a three-year flight to retrieve and return samples of solar wind particles.

"Genesis wouldn't need to use any fuel at all in a perfect world. But since we can't control the many variables that occur throughout the mission, we have to make some [course] corrections."

Along with colleagues, Lo developed a software program to quickly plot mission courses, drawing from the work of previous space flight engineers, including Robert Farquhar, a NASA veteran who used similar concepts to map the course for a comet-exploration mission decades ago.

Lo foresees a future in which permanent space outposts could line the superhighway, serving as supply depots for human explorers traveling along the same routes.

Past space wanderers have already tested the space road, including asteroids and comets. Comet Shoemaker-Levy, for example, collided with Jupiter "when it took an off-ramp toward the giant gas planet," NASA said.

Some scientists theorize that a killer asteroid traveled along the highway when it smacked into Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.




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