Attitude Adjustment

Mr Feder has a snarky grin on his face and a far‑away look in his eye. “Got another one. James Webb Space Telescope flies in this big circle crosswise to the Sun‑Earth line, right? But the Earth doesn’t stand still, it goes around the Sun, right? The circle keeps JWST the same distance from the Sun in maybe January, but it’ll fly towards the Sun three months later and get flung out of position.” <grabs a paper napkin> “Lemme show you. Like this and … like this.”

“Sorry, Mr Feder, that’s not how either JWST or L2 works. The satellite’s on a 6-month orbit around L2 — spiraling, not flinging. Your thinking would be correct for a solid gyroscope but it doesn’t apply to how JWST keeps station around L2. Show him, Sy.”

“Gimme a sec with Old Reliable, Cathleen.” <tapping> “OK, here’s an animation over a few months. What happens to JWST goes back to why L2 is a special point. The five Lagrange points are all about balance. Near L2 JWST will feel gravitational pulls towards the Sun and the Earth, but their combined attraction is opposed by the centrifugal force acting to move the satellite further out. L2 is where the three balance out radially. But JWST and anything else near the extended Sun‑Earth line are affected by an additional blended force pointing toward the line itself. If you’re close to it, sideways gravitational forces from the Sun and the Earth combine to attract you back towards the line where the sideways forces balance out. Doesn’t matter whether you’re north or south, spinward or widdershins, you’ll be drawn back to the line.”

Al’s on refill patrol, eavesdropping a little of course. He gets to our table, puts down the coffee pot and pulls up a chair. “You’re talking about the JWST. Can someone answer a question for me?”

“We can try.”
 ”What’s the question?”
  Mr Feder, not being the guy asking the question, pooches out his lower lip.

“OK, how do they get it to point in the right direction and stay there? My little backyard telescope gives me fits just centering on some star. That’s while the tripod’s standing on good, solid Earth. JWST‘s out there standing on nothing.”

JWST‘s Attitude Control System has a whole set of functions to do that. It monitors JWST‘s current orientation. It accepts targeting orders for where to point the scope. It computes scope and satellite rotations to get from here to there. Then it revises as necessary in case the first‑draft rotations would swing JWST‘s cold side into the sunlight. It picks a convenient guide star from its million‑star catalog. Finally, ACS commands its attitude control motors to swing everything into the new position. Every few milliseconds it checks the guide star’s image in a separate sensor and issues tweak commands to keep the scope in proper orientation.”

“I get the sequence, Sy, but it doesn’t answer the how. They can’t use rockets for all that maneuvering or they’d run out of fuel real fast.”

“Not to mention cluttering up the view field with exhaust gases.”

“Good point, Cathleen. You’re right, Al, they don’t use rockets, they use reaction wheels, mostly.”

“Uh-oh, didn’t broken reaction wheels kill Kepler and a few other missions?”

“That sounds familiar, Mr Feder. What’s a reaction wheel, Sy, and don’t they put JWST in jeopardy?”

 Gyroscope, image by Lucas Vieira

“A reaction wheel is a massive doughnut that can spin at high speed, like a classical gyroscope but not on gimbals.”

“Hey, Moire, what’s a gimbal?”

“It’s a rotating frame with two pivots for something else that rotates. Two or three gimbals at mutual right angles let what’s inside orient independent of what’s outside. The difference between a classical gyroscope and a reaction wheel is that the gyroscope’s pivots rotate freely but the reaction wheel’s axis is fixed to a structure. Operationally, the difference is that you use a gyroscope’s angular inertia to detect change of orientation but you push against a reaction wheel’s angular inertia to create a change of orientation.”

“What about the jeopardy?”

Kepler‘s failing wheels used metal bearings. JWST‘s are hardened ceramic.”

<whew>

~~ Rich Olcott

Yardsticks

“Hi, Cathleen, meet Mr Richard Feder, of Fort Lee NJ. He’s got a question that’s more in your Astronomy bailiwick than mine. Have a strawberry scone.”

“Mmm, still warm from Al’s oven. Thanks, Sy. Hello and what’s your question, Mr Feder?”

“Hiya. So if the James Webb Space Telescope is gonna be a million miles behind the Moon, won’t the Moon block its signals to us?”

“Oh dear, he said ‘miles.’ Sy, you’d better get out Old Reliable to look up numbers and do unit conversions. Mr Feder, I don’t think in miles.”

“Huh? What do you use instead, like paces or something?”

“Depends on what objects I’m considering and why I’m thinking about them. There are so many useful ratios out there it’s often easier to use ratios than huge numbers one can’t wrap one’s head around. Jupiter’s radius, for instance, is eleven times Earth’s, and the Sun is ten times wider still. Diameter and circumference follow the same ratios, of course. Square those ratios for relative surface area, cube them for relative volume. Who needs miles or kilometers?”

“Those numbers right, Moire?”

“Mmm … 6371 kilometers or 3959 miles for Earth, 71492 kilometers or 42441 miles for Jupiter, 695700 kilometers or 432300 miles for the Sun. The Jupiter/Earth ratio’s 11.2, the Sun/Jupiter ratio’s 9.73. The lady knows what she’s talking about.”

“Here’s a few fun factoids. The Moon’s distance is 10 times Earth’s Equator which is 100 times the International Space Station’s altitude. For that matter, if you wrapped a string around Earth’s Equator, it’d be just long enough to reach up to a GPS satellite and back. But all those are near‑Earth measurements where it makes sense to think in miles or kilometers. That’s too cumbersome for the bigger picture.”

“What else you got?”

“Within the Solar System I generally use one or the other of two convenient yardsticks. They measure the same distances, of course, but they have different applications. One is the nominal radius of Earth’s orbit, about 150 million kilometers.’

“That’s 93 million miles, Mr Feder.”

“I knew that one, Moire.”

“Anyway, we call that distance an Astronomical Unit. It’s handy for locating bodies relative to the Sun. Parker Solar Probe has gotten within a tenth of an AU of the Sun, for instance, and Neptune’s about 30 AU out. The Oort Cloud begins near 2000 AU and may extend a hundred times as far.”

“I ain’t even gonna ask what the Oort‐thing is, but I’m glad it’s a long way away.”

“We think it’s where long‑period comets come from.”

“Far away is good then. So what’s your other yardstick?”

“Lightspeed.”

“186 thousand miles per second, Mr Feder.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“It’s also 300 thousand kilometers per second, and one light‑second per second, and one light‑year per year. Within the Solar System my benchmarks are that Earth is 500 light-seconds from the Sun, and Pluto was 4½ light-hours away from us when New Horizons sent back those marvelous images. The Sun’s nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, is 4⅓ light‑years away, and when you compare hours to years that gives you an idea of how small we are on the interstellar scale.”

“Cathleen, when you mentioned New Horizons that reminded me of the JWST. We’ve gotten off the track from Mr Feder’s question. Why isn’t the Moon going to block those signals?”

“Because it’ll never be in the way.” <sketching on a paper napkin> “There’s a bunch of moving parts here so hold on. The Earth orbits the Sun and the Moon orbits the Earth once a month, right? The L2 point doesn’t orbit the Earth. It orbits the Sun, staying exactly behind Earth so yeah, once a month the Moon could maybe get between Earth and L2. But JWST won’t be at L2, it’ll be in a wide orbit around that point and mostly perpendicular to the orbits of the Earth and Moon.”

“How wide?”

“It’ll vary depending on what they need, but it’s big enough to keep the spacecraft’s solar panels in the sunlight.”

“Solar panels? I thought the IR sensors needed cold cold cold.”

“They do. JWST protects its cold side with a hot side featuring a pretty pink Kapton parasol.”

~~ Rich Olcott

A Diamond in The Sky with Lucy

Mid-afternoon coffee-and-scone time. As I step into his coffee shop Al’s quizzing Cathleen about something in one of his Astronomy magazines. “This Lucy space mission they just sent up, how come it looks like they’re shooting at either side of Jupiter instead of hitting it straight-on? And it’s got this crazy butterfly orbit that crosses the whole Solar System a couple of times. What sense does that make?”

Planned path of Lucy‘s mission to study Trojan asteroids (black dots).
After diagrams by NASA and Southwest Research Institute

“It shoots to either side because there’s interesting stuff out there. We think the Solar System started as a whirling disk of dust that gradually clumped together. The gravity from Jupiter’s clump scarfed up the lion’s share of the leftovers after the Sun coalesced. The good news is, not all of Jupiter’s hoard wound up in the planet. Some pieces made it to Jupiter’s orbit but then collected in the Trojan regions ahead and behind it. Looking at that material may teach us about the early Solar System.”

“Way out there? Why not just fall into Jupiter like everything else did?”

I do Physics, I can’t help but cut in. “It’s the many‑body problem in its simplest case, just the Sun, Jupiter and an asteroid in a three‑body interaction—”

Cathleen gives me a look. “Inappropriate physicsplaining, Sy, we’re talking Astronomy here. Al’s magazine is about locating and identifying objects in space. These asteroids happen to cluster in special locations roughly sixty degrees away from Jupiter.”

“But Al’s question was, ‘Why?‘ You told him why we’re sending Lucy to the Trojans, but Physics is why they exist and why that mission map looks so weird.”

“Good point, go ahead. OK with you, Al?”

“Sure.”

I unholster Old Reliable, my tricked‑out tablet, and start sketching on its screen. “OK, orange dot’s Jupiter, yellow dot’s the Sun. Calculating their motion is a two-body problem. Gravity pulls them together but centrifugal force pulls them apart. The forces balance when the two bodies orbit in ellipses around their common center of gravity. Jupiter’s ellipse is nearly a circle but it wobbles because the Sun orbits their center of gravity. Naturally, once Newton solved that problem people turned to the next harder one.”

“That’s where Lucy comes in?”

“Not yet, Al, we’ve still got those Trojan asteroids to account for. Suppose the Jupiter‑Sun system’s gravity captures an asteroid flying in from somewhere. Where will it settle down? Most places, one body dominates the gravitational field so the asteroid orbits that one. But suppose the asteroid finds a point where the two fields are equal.”

“Oh, like halfway between, right?”

“Between, Al, but not halfway.”

“Right, Cathleen. The Sun/Jupiter mass ratio and Newton’s inverse‑square law put the equal‑pull point a lot closer to Jupiter than to the Sun. If the asteroid found that point it would hang around forever or until it got nudged away. That’s Lagrange’s L1 point. There are two other balance points along the Sun‑Jupiter line. L2 is beyond Jupiter where the Sun’s gravity is even weaker. L3 is way on the other side of the Sun, a bit inside Jupiter’s orbit.”

“Hey, so those 60° points on the orbit, those are two more balances because they’re each the same distance from Jupiter and the Sun, right?”

“There you go, Al. L4 leads Jupiter and L5 runs behind. Lagrange published his 5‑point solution to the three‑body problem in 1762, just 250 years ago. The asteroids found Jupiter’s Trojan regions billions of years earlier.”

“We astronomers call the L4 cluster the Trojan camp and the L5 cluster the Greek camp, but that’s always bothered me. It’d be OK if we called the planet Zeus, but Jupiter’s a Roman god. Roman times were a millennium after classical Greece’s Trojan War so the names are just wrong.”

“I hadn’t thought about that, Cathleen, but you’re right. Anyway, back to Al’s diagram of Lucy’s journey. <activating Old Reliable’s ‘Animate’ function> Sorry, Al, but you’ve been misled. The magazine’s butterfly chart has Jupiter standing still. Here’s a stars-eye view. It’s more like the Trojans will come to Lucy than the reverse.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Engineering A Black Hole

<bomPAH-dadadadaDEEdah> That weird ringtone on Old Reliable again. Sure enough, the phone function’s caller-ID display says 710‑555‑1701.  “Ms Baird, I presume?”

A computerish voice, aggressive but feminine, with a hint of desperation. “Commander Baird will be with you shortly, Mr Moire. Please hold.”

A moment later, “Hello, Mr Moire.”

“Ms Baird. Congratulations on the promotion.”

“Thank you, Mr Moire. I owe you for that.”

“How so?”

“Your posts about phase-based weaponry got me thinking. I assembled a team, we demonstrated a proof of concept and now Federation ships are being equipped with the Baird‑Prymaat ShieldSaw. Works a treat on Klingon and Romulan shielding. So thank you.”

“My pleasure. Where are you now?”

“I’m on a research ship called the Invigilator. We’re orbiting black hole number 77203 in our catalog. We call it ‘Lonesome‘.”

“Why that name?”

“Because there’s so little other matter in the space nearby. The poor thing barely has an accretion disk.”

“Sounds boring.”

“No, it’s exciting, because it’s so close to a theoretical ideal. It’s like the perfectly flat plane and the frictionless pulley — in real life there are always irregularities that the simple equations can’t account for. For black holes, our only complete solutions assume that the collapsed star is floating in an empty Universe with no impinging gravitational or electromagnetic fields. That doesn’t happen, of course, but Lonesome comes close.”

“But if we understand the theoretical cases and it nearly matches one, why bother with it at all?”

“Engineering reasons.”

“You’re engineering a black hole?”

“In a way, yes. Or at least that’s what we’re working on. We think we have a way to extract power from a black hole. It’ll supply inexhaustible cheap energy for a new Star Fleet anti‑matter factory. “

“I thought the only thing that could escape a black hole’s Event Horizon was Hawking radiation, and it cheats.”

“Gravity escapes honestly. Its intense field generates some unexpected effects. Your physicist Roger Penrose used gravity to explain the polar jets that decorate so many compact objects including black holes. He calculated that if a comet or an atom or something else breakable shatters when it falls into a spinning compact object’s gravitational field, some pieces would be trapped there but under the right conditions other pieces would slingshot outward with more energy than they had going in. In effect, the extra energy would come from the compact object’s angular momentum.”

“And that’s what you’re planning to do? How are you going to trap the expelled pieces?”

“No, that’s not what we’re planning. Too random to be controlled with our current containment field technology. We’re going pure electromagnetic, turning Lonesome into a giant motor‑generator. We know it has a stable magnetic field and it’s spinning rapidly. We’ll start by giving Lonesome some close company. There’s enough junk in its accretion disk for several Neptune‑sized planets. The plan is to use space tugs to haul in the big stuff and Bussard technology for the dust, all to assemble a pair of Ceres-sized planetoids. W’re calling them Pine and Road. We’ll park them in a convenient equatorial orbit in a Lagrange‑stable configuration so Pine, Road and Lonesome stay in a straight line.”

“Someone’s been doing research on old cinema.”

“The Interstellar Movie Database. Anyhow, when the planetoids are out there we string conducting tractor beams between them. If we locate Pine and Road properly, Lonesome’s rotating magnetic field lines will cross the fields at right angles and induce a steady electric current. Power for the anti‑matter synthesizers.”

“Ah, so like Penrose’s process you’re going to drain off some of Lonesome‘s rotational kinetic energy. Won’t it run out?”

Lonesome‘s mass is half again heavier than your Sun’s, Mr Moire. It’ll spin for a long, long time.”

“Umm … that ‘convenient orbit.’ Lonesome‘s diameter is so small that orbits will be pretty speedy. <calculating quickly with Old Reliable> Even 200 million kilometers away you’d circle Lonesome in less than 15 minutes. Will the magnetic field that far out be strong enough for your purposes?”

“Almost certainly so, but the gravimagnetodynamic equations don’t have exact solutions. We’re not going to know until we get there.”

“That’s how research works, all right. Good luck.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Solar System is in gear

Pythagoras was onto far more than he knew.  He discovered that a stretched string made a musical tone, but only when it was plucked at certain points.  The special points are those where the string lengths above and below the point are in the ratio of small whole numbers — 1:1, 1:2, 2:3, ….  Away from those points you just get a brief buzz.  All of Western musical theory grew out of that discovery.

sinesThe underlying physics is straightforward.  The string produces a stable tone only if its motion has nodes at both ends, which means the vibration has to have a whole number of nodes, which means you have to pluck halfway between two of the nodes you want.  If you pluck it someplace like 39¼:264.77 then you excite a whole lot of frequencies that fight each other and die out quickly.

That notion underlies auditorium acoustics and aircraft design and quantum mechanics.  In a way, it also determines where objects reside in the Solar System.

If you’ve got a Sun with only one planet, that planet can pick any orbit it wants — circular or grossly elliptical, close approach or far, constrained only by the planet’s kinetic energy.

If you toss in a second planet it probably won’t last long — the two will smash together or one will fall into the Sun or leave the system.  There are half-a-dozen Lagrange points, special configurations like “all in a straight line” where things are stable.  Other than those, a three-body system lives in chaos — not even a really good computer program can predict where things will be after a few orbits.

geared-saturnAdd a few more planets in a random configuration and stability goes out the window — but then something interesting happens.  It’s the Chladni effect all over again.  Planets and dust and everything go rampaging around the system.  After a while (OK, a billion years or so) sweet-spot orbits start to appear, special niches where a planet can collect small stuff but where nothing big comes close enough to break it apart.  It’s not like each planet seeks shelter, but if it finds one it survives.

It’s a matter of simple arithmetic and synchrony.  Suppose you’re in a 600-day orbit.  Neighbor Fred looking for a good spot to occupy could choose your same 600-day orbit but on the other side of the Sun from you.  But that’s a hard synchrony to maintain — be off by a few percent and in just a few years, SMASH!

The next safest place would be in a different orbit but still somehow in synchrony with yours.  Inside your orbit Fred has to go faster and therefore has a shorter orbital period than yours.  Suppose Fred’s year is exactly 300 days (a 2:1 period ratio, like a 2:1 gear ratio).  Every six months he’s sort-of close to you but the rest of the time he’s far away.

Our Solar System does seem to have developed using gear-year logic.  Adjacent orbital years are very close to being in whole-number ratios.  Mercury, for instance, circles the Sun in about 88 days.  That’s just 2% away from 2/5 of Venus’s 225¾ days.

This table shows year-lengths for the Sun’s most prominent hangers-on, along with ratios for adjacent objects.  For the “ideal” ratios I arbitrarily picked nearby whole-number multiples of 2.  I calculated how long each object’s year “should” be compared to its lower neighbor — the average inaccuracy across all ten objects is only 0.18%.

Object
Period, years
2 × shorter / longer period
“Ideal” ratio
“Ideal” period, years
Real/”Ideal”
Mercury
0.24
0.24
Venus
0.62
5.11
5 : 2
0.60
102%
Earth
1.00
3.25
3 : 2
0.92
108%
Mars
1.88
3.76
4 : 2
2.00
94%
Ceres
4.60
4.89
5 : 2
4.70
98%
Jupiter
11.86
5.16
5 : 2
11.50
103%
Saturn
29.46
4.97
5 : 2
29.65
99%
Uranus
84.02
5.70
6 : 2
88.37
95%
Neptune
164.80
3.92
4 : 2
168.04
98%
Pluto
248.00
3.01
3 : 2
247.20
100%

gears-2The usual rings-around-the-Sun diagram doesn’t show the specialness of the orbits we’ve got.  This chart shows the four innermost planets in their “ideal” orbits, properly scaled and with approximately the right phases.  I used artistic license to emphasize the gear-like action by reversing Earth’s and Mercury’s direction.   Earth and Mars are never near each other, nor are Earth and Venus.

It doesn’t show up in this video’s time resolution, but Venus and Mercury demonstrate another way the gears can work.  Mercury nears Venus twice in each full 5-year cycle, once leading and once trailing.  The leading pass slows Mercury down (raising it towards Venus), but the trailing pass speeds it up again.  Net result — safe!

~~ Rich Olcott