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88

Cory, here's a different way of thinking about gravity assists that may help: First is my short answer for readers in a hurry: What is really going on is a giant game of pool, with fast-moving planets acting as massive cue balls that impart some of their energy when they whack into tiny spacecraft. Since you can't bounce a spacecraft directly off the ...


78

The trouble with orbital mechanics is that it rapidly gets exceedingly complicated and hard to make intuitive sense of. However I think there is a reasonably straightforward way to show how little effect GR has on an Earth-Moon transfer orbit. But this takes a little preparation so bear with me while I give a short introduction. I hope everyone who reads ...


61

Can photons push the source which is emitting them? Yes. If yes, will a more intense flashlight accelerate me more? Yes Does the wavelength of the light matter? No Is this practical for space propulsion? Probably not Doesn't it defy the law of momentum conservation? No In fact that last question is the key one, because photons ...


53

Start by considering what is seen by the people watching you from the Earth. Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, $c$, so the quickest you could get to Kepler 186f would be if you were travelling at $c$ in which case it would take 490 years. In practice it would take longer than this because you have to accelerate from rest when you leave the ...


44

A sailboat can make headway against the wind because of the sum of force vectors due to the wind interacting with the sail and, due to the keel interacting with the water. A sailboat without a keel can not make headway into the wind. There is no "water" out there into which a solar sailer could dip its keel. http://newt.phys.unsw.edu.au/~jw/sailing.html ...


43

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory has incorporated general relativistic effects in its numerical integration of the planets since the mid to late 1960s. For example, the JPL DE19 ephemeris, released in 1967, incorporated relativistic effects in its modeling of the solar system. This didn't help much. Had they ignored relativistic effects there would have been ...


35

Energy is in fact conserved, even in gravitational slingshots. After the slingshot, the velocity of the spacecraft may indeed change, which means its kinetic energy will also change. If this happens, the energy increase (or decrease) will be made up by a commensurate decrease (or increase) in the kinetic energy of the planet. In plain English: The planet ...


35

As other answers say, if someone just jumps off of the international space station(ISS), they would still be in orbit around the earth since the ISS is traveling at 17,000 miles per hour (at an altitude of 258 miles). Instead of just jumping, imagine the astronaut had a jet pack that could cancel that speed of 17,000 miles per hour in a very short time ...


24

I'll start the ball rolling on this one. My GR knowledge is probably not good enough to make this a truly satisfying answer... The gravitational acceleration for an object moving radially at non-relativistic velocities in the Schwarzschild metric is modified by a factor $(1 - r_s/r)(3[1-r_s/r] -2)$, where $r_s = 2GM/c^2 = 0.00885 m$ for the Earth. If we ...


22

It's all a question of if they need it. Most that are staying within a couple AU of the sun can get sufficient power from solar panels. It's when they start getting further away that they use an RTG. For example, New Horizons, which launched in 2006 (which is considered to be 'modern' when you only launch a few probes per year) is going to Pluto, so it ...


22

A few sanity checks without actually computing anything: First, the error due to neglecting general relativity is so small that it didn't affect prediction of lunar eclipses and wasn't actually noticed anywhere except in Mercury's orbit (at least not until they purpose-built experiments to detect minor discrepancies). I know this doesn't give a completely ...


20

It all comes down to the fact that we are moving too. How can the bird drop down and catch the worm, if the earth and the worm are moving so quickly. It can because the tree, the bird, and the air are moving at the same speed, cancelling out. If we launch a spacecraft from Mars to the earth, the spacecraft is zooming around the sun at the same speed Mars ...


17

The basic tragedy of space travel is expressed by the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation, which says that the amount of reaction mass you need grows exponentially with your $\Delta v/v_e$, where $v_e$ is the exhaust velocity. The advantage of antimatter propulsion is high energy density, but energy density doesn't have any direct, major effect on the amount of ...


16

Can photons push the source which is emitting them? Yes, photons have momentum and momentum must be conserved. The source is pushed in the opposite direction of the photons. If yes, will a more intense flashlight accelerate me more? Yes, more photons means greater momentum. Does the wavelength of the light matter? Yes, shorter wavelength ...


16

It's a great way to get gyroscopic stability. NASA has been using this technique for a long time. For instance, the Pioneer spacecraft used this method. Another example is the Juno spacecraft as well. I hope that answers your question sufficiently.


16

Somebody has to put the pieces together somewhere. If you do it in the ground, you can work in shirtsleeves, with easy access to supplies, tools, equipment, and other workers. If you need a tool, you can probably walk next door to get it, or ask someone to bring it to you. If you drop a tool, you can pick it up. In orbit, you have to work in a bulky ...


15

edit: I originally had some points about the inefficiency of RTGs, but after some more research prompted by @Jeremy I found that it's not really a valid point when they're used appropriately for the spacecraft's mission. The RTGs used by Galileo at Jupiter generated 300W of power, whereas the solar panels that will be used by Juno at Jupiter will generate ...


15

The question is about solar sails - I thought I would add this (too long for a comment) to clarify some confusion that is apparent in answers and comments. Solar sailing uses photon momentum, not the solar wind. The radiation force on a perfectly reflective sail of area $A$ is roughly $$ F_{rad} = 2\times\frac{L A}{4\pi r^2 c}$$ where $r$ is the distance ...


14

Two points that may help Think about what is required in order to accelerate. You have to throw something overboard.1 However your engine works you will eventually run out of fuel and at that point you are done accelerating. There is an exception to the "run out of fuel" claim and a possible loophole. The exception is a photon drive: just point a laser ...


12

It depends on how you define the problem. Humans have re-entered the atmosphere from the International Space Station many times, by riding in either a Space Shuttle or a Soyuz capsule. Someone re-entering without a spacecraft of some sort would obviously have to wear some kind of pressure suit (as Felix Baumgartner did in his jump). How elaborate is the ...


12

The real problem with RTGs is that the US stopped making Pu238 in the 80s and has been very slow to start up production again, purchasing all our spacecraft Pu238 from the Russians (who have now also run out). I don't know about the byproducts from the breeder reactors, but Pu238 itself is actually not that dangerous to handle, and only toxic if ingested.


12

Why can't a space ship accelerate infinitely? Because a space ship needs to carry fuel, and because that fuel needs to be contained in a fuel tank. That need to carry the fuel needed to make the spacecraft accelerate leads to the very nasty ideal rocket equation, $$\Delta v = v_e \ln \left( \frac {m_{\text{initial}}} {m_{\text{final}}} \right)$$ The ...


12

Deriving the relativistic equations for constant acceleration would be a formidable problem for most non-physicists. If you want to see how it's done then look at Gravitation by Misner, Thorne and Wheeler, chapter 6. For most of us the best option is just to look at John Baez's excellent article on the relativistic rocket. The relevant equation is: $$ d = ...


11

Yes, sort of, sometimes. As others have indicated, it is not possible for a solar sail to produce a force in the direction of the Sun. This does not, however, mean a solar sail cannot take a spacecraft to the Sun. If your spacecraft is in solar orbit, you can tilt the sail "backwards", reducing the orbital energy and lowering the orbit. The potential energy ...


11

Stabilization. Example: Pioneer Equalize heating (barbecue mode). Example: Apollo Deploy antennas & booms (via centripetal force). Example: IMAGE Maintain tension in a solar sail. Example: Cosmos 1 Test general relativity. Example: LAGEOS Create artificial gravity. Example: Gemini Simplify or reduce weight of sensors (e.g. star trackers). ...


10

The link you posted refers to a design which would supposedly make use of faster than light travel. After reading this, I immediately stopped reading, since this is not possible. I don't care if it's a NASA-affiliated person who says this, it is simply misguided! Before continuing, I should draw your attention to the fact that I will not be discussing the ...


9

The reason the donut is heavier when it's spinning is that it contains more kinetic energy, and this energy has mass. (Or at least, it does if you use the word "mass" to mean "relativistic mass" rather than "rest mass", which is somewhat out-dated language, but I'm going to keep using it anyway.) The question is, where does that energy go when the donut is ...


9

One aspect is the concern for if the spacecraft were to fail to launch correctly and ended up crashing back to earth. In such cases, the nuclear radiation pollution could be severe if it ended up crashing in inhabited areas.


8

The distance between Earth and Alpha Centauri is $4.4\,\text{ly}$. Dividing by $60\,\text{years}$ it's approximately $22000\,\text{km/s}$. The relativistic factor, (I mean $\gamma = \frac{1}{\sqrt{1-v^2/c^2}}$) for this is almost $1$. If we take a constant acceleration of $2g$ (it's possible) it would take only $320\,\text{hours}$ to reach this speed ...


8

If you are not interested in relativistic effects, the answer to your question is easy to workout. According to Wikipedia, Alpha Centauri is 4.24 ly away (4.0114x$10^{16}\mathrm{m}$). So to get there in 60 years ($1892160000\mathrm{s}$). So your non-relativistic answer is $v = \frac{d}{t} = \frac{4.0114 \times 10^{16}}{1892160000} = 21200000 ...



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