Geometers Engineer New Tools to Wrangle Spacecraft Orbits

Agustin Moreno, past Member in the School of Mathematics (2021–23), in collaboration with an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has devised new tools for cataloging space orbits using symplectic geometry, helping to reunite two fields which have long since been growing apart. 

"In October, a Falcon Heavy rocket is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida, carrying NASA’s Europa Clipper mission. The $5 billion mission is designed to find out if Europa, Jupiter’s fourth-largest moon, can support life. But because Europa is constantly bombarded by intense radiation created by Jupiter’s magnetic field, the Clipper spacecraft can’t orbit the moon itself. Instead, it will slide into an eccentric orbit around Jupiter and gather data by repeatedly swinging by Europa — 53 times in total — before retreating from the worst of the radiation. Every time the spacecraft rounds Jupiter, its path will be slightly different, ensuring that it can take pictures and gather data from Europa’s poles to its equator.

To plan convoluted tours like this one, trajectory planners use computer models that meticulously calculate the trajectory one step at a time."

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