Monday, October 1, 2012

Turning around in space

Another ask Tsana question today. (And a relatively shortish response, sort of. Gasp!) Keep 'em coming, guys :-)

Anon asked:

How hard would it be to turn around in space... Say for some reason, Curiosity needed to turn around midflight and return to earth. Would BURNING fuel on some sort of reverse thruster work or would it have to make the trip to Mars, orbit the planet and break orbit to return
This is for a picture book that I feel impelled to be at least somewhat based in reality... which may be dumb.

Hi Anon,

It's absolutely NOT dumb to try to make picture books or any sort of books for kids plausible or semi-plausible. Especially when it comes to these sorts of areas where they can't possibly have any hands-on experience. Hollywood bombards them (and all of us) with so much inaccuracy that any little bit of truth helps. If they remember your book when they come to learn about these things later on, it will help the science stick. If all they have to go on are poorly researched movies which have given them wrong "intuition" about these things, it makes it a lot harder for them since they have to unlearn the rubbish first.

On to the actual question part!

It's pretty tricky to turn around in space. Because there's no friction, you have to use the same amount of energy it took to speed up to slow down by the same amount (so to come to a stop, say). This is a huge waste of fuel. Changing course more subtly isn't as difficult, however.

Apollo 13 Movie poster. (Nabbed from Wiki)
For something specifically like Curiosity: an unmanned probe sent to another planet, I can't think of a reason they'd try to get it back to Earth (unless a sample return was specifically part of the mission plan, but I don't think that's what you're asking). If something went wrong, they'd be more likely to cut their losses and abandon it. Also, almost all of that kind of probe's fuel is used up during take off, leaving only enough for minor course corrections and landing. In that case, plausibility would dictate that attempting a gravitational slingshot around Mars would be the only way to maybe get it back. You'd also have the issue of how to collect it from Earth's orbit since a) Earth would have moved a lot while it was travelling and b) if you were lucky enough to get it to pass close to Earth, it would be travelling quite fast and probably wouldn't have enough fuel to go into orbit around Earth for collection. It would definitely be tricky.

A very good example of a scenario relating to your question is the movie Apollo 13. If you haven't seen it, I recommend that you do. As far as I can remember (and I freely admit it's been many years since I watched it, so don't hold me to this), the physics in it was pretty accurate. In that, things go wrong with the (real life) 70s moon mission and, among other fixes, the astronauts have to slingshot around the moon to get safely back to Earth.

In the end, I'd say it depends on the nature of your mission as to what would be done. If it was a manned mission to Mars, for example, they might try harder to bring them back early, but physics would not be on their side.

Hope that answers your question!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Have a question or comment? Feel free to leave a response, even on old posts.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...