The Orbital Mechanic – Part 3


“Okay, hold on everyone.” The mission director demanded everyone’s attention, then walked over to the whiteboard. He drew a small circle in the center surrounded by three slightly oval or elliptical circles, progressively larger representing the orbits of the planets out to Jupiter. He drew the flight path of Vector1 starting from where the Earth was a year ago for launch, around the sun just past Venus, and approaching Earth’s present position. He drew an X representing the position of Vector1, very close to earth, then a dashed arc passing just outside earth and on out to Jupiter.

“Why didn’t he draw Mercury or Mars?” Kayla whispered.

“I’ll tell ya’ in a minute.”

The director continued, “In three days, Vector1 will make it’s closest approach to earth.”

“That’s called periapsis” Ben said to Kayla.

“On it’s current path it will be too high.” The director handed the marker to Tom. “What are our options? Let’s get them all on the board.”

“Wow, dads pretty important. He’s got to figure out how to save this mission.”

“Sometimes they call him Dr. TD for Touchdown when the probe hits the target. Or sometimes it’s Dr. T for ‘trajectory’ because he’s the best trajectory planner on the planet.”

“Okay.” Tom accepted the pen and moved to the board. “Is there anyway to command power-up any sooner than fifty-five minutes?”

Several head movements indicated no.

“Jerry, do we still have our full budget of extra fuel?”

“Yes, all prior burns have been planned, nominal, and within budget.”

“If we could burn now, we could correct it with one burn, perhaps even in an hour.” Tom drew a red curve from the X passing between earth and the present trajectory.

“Remember Tom,” a lady at one of the computers said, “once the computer powers up, it will take another thirty minutes for it to perform system checks and to confirm attitude. We can’t burn until that’s done.”

“But you’re not sure we have an attitude problem, right?” Tom asserted.

“That’s true. If we knew the attitude was okay, we could burn right after she wakes up.”

“Can you give me a probability? What are the odds that Vector1 is still at the right roll, pitch and yaw?

There was silence for ten seconds.

Ben held his hand out flat, palm down, in front of Kayla. “This is roll.” Ben rotated his hand thumb down, then thumb up. “This is pitch.” Ben pointed his finger tips downward, then upward. “This is yaw.” He rotated his hand moving his finger tips left and right, keeping his palm pointed down.

Another man spoke up. “I’d say if both solar panels are still extended, then the solar wind would have acted equally about Vector1’s CG”

“CG?” Kayla asked Ben.

“Center of Gravity. Kind a like the pivot point on a playground teeter-totter. If you push on both sides equally, then it won’t rotate.”

“Look.” Tom used the blue pen and sketched another curve. “We can correct this problem using two Delta-V burns a couple hours from now, but we’ll use most of our spare fuel. There won’t be any margin for error later in the mission.”

“That’s not acceptable.” The director patted a handkerchief on his forehead.

“We may be able to do it with one simple burn if we do it in one hour when Vector1 wakes up. Is there any other way to ascertain her orientation?”

Again silence.

Kayla still held the model of Vector1 in her lap, running her fingers over the solar panels. She  turned to Ben and whispered. “I remember a time when dad and I were out on the back patio of our house an hour after sunset looking for shooting stars. Dad pointed out a satellite passing slowly overhead reflecting sunlight from it’s solar…” Kayla stopped and looked over toward her dad then mumbled. “Why don’t they just look at it through a telescope.”

Kayla grabbed Ben’s arm. “Why don’t they just look at Vector1 through a telescope? Or a few telescopes?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t been here long enough to know if that will work. Usually space probes are too far away for a visual. But this one’s close to earth.”

“Uh, Dr. Dixon.” Ben raised his hand slowly. “Sir, I don’t know if this is practical, but Kayla has a suggestion.”

The director turned to Tom. “Who is this Tom?”

“This is my daughter, Kayla. She’s here for…”

“This isn’t a good time for a field trip.” the director said.

“I know sir,” Ben insisted, “but I think you may want to hear what she has to say.”

“Okay young lady, if you’re as smart as your dad, we need to hear it.”

All eyes turned on Kayla.

“Well, my dad showed me a satellite one night flying overhead. The solar panels reflect the sun just after sunset if they’re pointed in just the right way. If Vector1 is close enough to the earth, can’t we look through telescopes and see how much the solar panels are reflecting?”

Several people in the room suddenly turned back to their computers and began typing.

“Ya, remember that time,” someone in the room said, “that we needed to determine the condition of the Space Shuttle. We pointed lasers and telescopes from Patrick Air Force Base and they were able to see into the shuttle bay and…”

The room turned from silence to business. “Get on it people. Contact all the NASA tracking stations and get those telescopes pointed at Vector1.”

Dr. Tom looked over at Kayla and gave her a wink. The director nudged Tom’s arm with his elbow.

Within fifteen minutes, the tracking stations began reporting.

“Affirmative!” The man in the plaid shirt called out. “Indeed, Vector1 solar panels appear fully extended and her attitude unchanged by the solar flare.”

Dr. TD began running simulations on his laptop to plan for the correct Delta-V needed right when Vector1 came online.

Kayla and Ben were no longer sitting in the corner. Now an integral part of the team, they looked over shoulders at data on various controller screens. Optimistic tension still filled the room.

“She’s back on-line.” yelled one of the controllers.

Immediately, the command was issued and Vector1 made the course correction successfully. The control room erupted with cheers. The good news, Vector1 could continue on its journey to Jupiter; the bad news, there was a good chance her solar panels were damaged in the flare. This would reduce mission capability, but not crush it.

Ben elbowed the ninth-grader. “I think they should rename it, Kayla-one.”

Mentor Note

Would you like to be the engineer, mathematician, or scientist that figures out how to get spaceships to distant worlds? If so, you may want to consider a career in Orbital Mechanics, also known as Celestial Mechanics, or Astrodynamics. It’s a great job. Engineers of this type must understand the laws of physics, mathematics, and computers. Dr. Dixon uses all these tools to plan and simulate interplanetary trajectories. As a result, mankind gets more experience with space, and the truth about distant places.

What did you learn from this story? Why does it take so long to get to Jupiter or other planets? Is there a way we can get there faster? Why did Dr. Dixon send Vector1 around the sun, past Venus, and back to Earth before going to Jupiter? Why did the solar flare knock Vector1 off course? Could solar wind make that much difference?

Why was Kayla able to think of a solution when others didn’t? Everything we see and experience in our lives might help us solve a problem someday. Even in school, all of our classes give us knowledge and perspective to help us be more creative and aware. next time you’re in a math or science class, listen for terms like parabola, conic sections, Newtons laws of motion. With tools like these, you could be The Orbital Mechanic that takes mankind to new and very distant places.

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