The Orbital Mechanic – Part 1


Copyright 2012 – Kenneth Richard Hardman

A Short Story in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM)

Cover by Lisa Anne Hardman

Story

“Dad, what a cool office.” Kayla hopped into the high-back chair behind a handsome desk lined with little spacecraft models and rockets. “I didn’t know you work in a place like this.”

“Well,” Dr. Thomas Dixon said to the fourteen year old. “I also spend some of my time in conference rooms and laboratories.” Kayla’s father carefully lifted a small model and glided it through the air in a curved path in front of his office window. The company marquee outside read, “Welcome to Bring your Child to Work Day.”

“It seems extra bright outside.” Dr. Dixon closed the blinds.

“I’m just glad to be out of school for a day.” Kayla said.

Now, how am I going to get her to see how exciting science is? Tom thought. He slid a chair right beside Kayla, tapped the space bar on his laptop keyboard, and typed a password.

“So dad, I know that you do something with spaceships, but whenever you leave papers around the house, all I see is circles and curves and numbers. Are you some kind of spacecraft artist?”

I guess conic sections could be viewed as art. He thought. “Not a traditional artist; I’d say I’m more of an architect, but I don’t design buildings.” Tom moved the mouse around, clicked a couple times, then pointed at the screen. “Look here. Do you recognize this?”

“Of course dad, it’s our solar system.”

“Right. Well, what do humans know about all these planets, and how did we get that information?”

“That’s easy, we just search for it on the internet. I did a research paper last year on Pluto. Did you know it’s not a planet any more?”

“So they say.” Tom tightened his lips. “No one on Pluto told us what Pluto is like, and there’s certainly no internet connection there, yet. What we know came from using telescopes and space probes to take pictures, measure motion, and frequencies of light, then someone could put the information on the world-wide-web.”

“Hey, do you think we’ll ever have a solar-system-wide-web?”

“Likely!” Tom said with a smile, pleased that such a thought came from his daughter. “And maybe you’ll be the one that invents it.”

Kayla picked up one of the models on the desk. “So is that what these are, interplanetary space camera’s?”

“Yes, but they do more than take pictures.”

“So your company designs spaceships. What exactly do you do?”

“I decide what path or trajectory to take to get there.”

“That doesn’t sound too hard. Just launch it on a rocket, and point it at the planet you want to go to.” Kayla turned when she heard her father snicker.

Tom clicked again and pointed. “Look here. This is called a interplanetary trajectory map. It’s an overlay, kind of a road map printed on the solar system.”

“One, two,” Kayla pointed at the circles on the screen starting from the sun moving outward. “Three. This one is Earth, right?”

“Yes. Now as you know all these planets are moving around the sun. Our planet goes around the sun in…”

“I know dad, 365 days.”

“That’s my girl. The closer the planet is to the sun, the faster it orbits around the sun. If we want to go from Earth to, say Jupiter, we can’t just aim for Jupiter, because it takes a number of months to get there, and Jupiter won’t be there any more if we just point in that direction from the start.”

Kayla pointed at Earth’s ellipse. “Why is the spaceship path from Earth to Jupiter going around the sun?”

“Kayla, what you’re looking at is the very mission we are performing right now, in space. In fact, we are at an exciting time in our mission to Jupiter. The spacecraft is called Vector1.” Tom pointed at Earth on the map. “We launched a year ago and in three days from now Vector1 will pass by Earth on it’s way out to Jupiter. It’s been around the sun…”

“Wait. Why is Vector1 coming back to Earth if it hasn’t been to Jupiter yet?”

“It’s called a gravity assist maneuver or fly-by. To get to great distances and speeds, we swing by planets and take some of their energy.” Tom slowly moved his finger along the curve approaching earth. “We fly in behind them and let the planets gravity accelerate the spacecraft and give it enough speed or energy to make it farther out into space, farther away from the sun. This way, we don’t have to use as much rocket fuel; fuel is heavy and very expensive to lift into space.”

Kayla wiggled in her seat and rubbed her nose. “So, you plan pathways that follow the planets, which speeds up the spacecraft to keep it going deeper into space.”

“That’s a simple view of it, but pretty much correct.”

“But if you just come in behind the planet, why doesn’t the planets gravity just pull it in and make it crash?”

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One Response to The Orbital Mechanic – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Solve a Billion Dollar Problem | Engineering Stories

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