Climbing Out Of A Well

Al can’t contain himself. “Wait, it’s gravity!”

Vinnie and I are puzzled. “Come again?”

“Sy, you were going on about how much speed a rocket has to shed on the way to some special orbit around Mars, like that’s a big challenge. But it’s not. The rocket’s fighting the Sun’s gravity all the way. That’s where the speed goes. The Earth’s gravity, too, a little bit early on, but mostly the Sun’s, right?”

“Good point, Al. Sun gravity’s what bends the rocket onto a curve instead of a straight line. Okay, Sy, you got a magic equation that accounts for the shed speed? Something’s gotta, ’cause we got satellites going around Mars.”

“Good point, Vinnie, and you’re right, there is an equation. It’s not magic, you’ve already seen it and it ties kinetic energy to gravitational potential energy.”

“Wait, if I remember right, kinetic energy goes like mass times velocity squared. How can you calculate that without knowing how big the rocket is?”

“Good question. We get around that by thinking things through for a unit mass, one kilogram in SI units. We can multiply by the rocket’s mass when we’re done, if we need to. The kinetic energy per unit mass, we call that specific kinetic energy, is just ½v². Look familiar?”

“That’s one side of your v²=2GM/R equation except you’ve got the 2 on the other side.”

“Good eye, Al. The right-hand side, except for the 2, is specific gravitational potential energy, again for unit mass. But we can’t use the equation unless we know the kinetic energy and gravitational potential are indeed equal. That’s true if you’re in orbit but we’re talking about traveling between orbits where you’re trading kinetic for potential or vice versa. One gains what the other loses so Al’s right on the money. Traveling out of a gravity well is all about losing speed.”

Al’s catching up. “So how fast you’re going determines how high you are, and how high you are says how fast you have to be going.”

Vinnie frowns a little. “I’m thinking back to in‑flight refueling ops where I’m coming up to the tanker from below and behind while the boom operator directs me in. That doesn’t sound like it’d work for joining up to a satellite.”

“Absolutely. If you’re above and behind you could speed up to meet the beast falling, or from below and ahead you could slow down to rise. Away from that diagonal you’d be out of luck. Weird, huh?”

“Yeah. Which reminds me, now we’re talking about this ‘deeper means faster‘ stuff. How does the deep‑dive maneuver work? You know, where they dive a spacecraft close to a planet or something and it shoots off with more speed than it started with. Seems to me whatever speed it gains it oughta give up on the way out of the well.”

“It’s a surprise play, alright, but it’s actually two different tricks. The slingshot trick is to dive close enough to capture a bit of the planet’s orbital momentum before you fly back out of the well. If you’re going in the planet’s direction you come out going faster than you went in.”

“Or you could dive in the other direction to slow yourself down, right?”

“Of course, Al. NASA used both options for the Voyager and Messenger missions. Vinnie, I know what you’re thinking and yes, theoretically stealing a planet’s orbital momentum could affect its motion but really, planets are huge and spacecraft are teeny. DART hit the Dimorphos moonlet head-on and slowed it down by 5%, but you’d need 66 trillion copies of Dimorphos to equal the mass of dinky little Mercury.”

“What’s the other trick?”

“Dive in like with the slingshot, but fire your rocket engine when you’re going fastest, just as the craft approaches its closest point to the planet. Another German rocketeer, Hermann Oberth, was the first to apply serious math to space navigation. This trick’s sometimes called the Oberth effect, though he didn’t call it that. He showed that rocket exhaust gets more effective the faster you’re going. The planet’s gravity helps you along on that, for free.”

“Free help is good.”

~~ Rich Olcott

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