Not Too Fast, Not Too Slow

“Vinnie, those nifty-looking transfer orbits that Hohmann invented but didn’t get to patent — you left something out.”

“What’s that, Sy?”

“The geometry looks lovely — a rocket takes off tangent to its orbit around one planet or something and inserts along a tangent to an orbit around something else. Very smooth and I can see how that routing avoids having to spend fuel to turn corners. But that ignores speeds.”

“What difference does that make?”

“It makes a difference whether or not you can get into the orbit you’re aiming for. Any orbit is a trade-off between gravity’s pull and the orbiter’s kinetic energy. Assuming you’re going for a circular orbit, there’s a strict relationship between your final height and your approach speed when you’re finally flying on the horizontal. You don’t want to come in too fast or too slow.”

“First thing I learned in pilot school. But that relationship’s an equation, ain’t it?”

“A couple, actually, but they’re simple. Let’s back into the problem. Say your mission is to put a communications relay satellite into lunastationary orbit around the Moon—”


“Like geostationary, but with the Moon. The satellite’s supposed to hover permanently above one spot on the Moon’s equator, so its orbital period has to equal the Moon’s ‘day,’ <pulling out Old Reliable, tapping> which is 27.322 days. Your satellite must loop around the Moon in exactly that much time. Either it’s scooting at low altitude or it’s ambling along further up. If we knew the speed we could find the radius, and if we knew the radius we could find the speed. We need some math.”

“I knew it. You’re gonna throw calculus at me.”

“Relax, Vinnie, it’s only algebra and we’re only going to combine two formulas and you already know one of them. The one you don’t know connects the speed, which I’m calling v, with the radius, R. They’re tied together by the Moon’s mass, M and Newton’s gravitational constant G. The formula is v2=2G×M/R. You can handle that, right?”

“Lessee … that says if I either double the mass or cut the distance by two, the speed has to be four times larger. Makes sense ’cause that’s about being in a deeper gravity well or getting closer in. Am I on track?”

“Absolutely. Next formula is the one you know, the circumference of a circle or in this case, the distance around that orbit.”

“That’s easy, 2πR.”

“And that’s also speed times the time, T so I’ll set those equal. <tapping on Old Reliable> Okay, the first formula says v2 so I square the circumference equation and solve that for v2 . You still with me?”

“You’re gonna set those two v-squareds equal, I suppose.”

“You’re still on track. Yup and then I gather the Rs on one side and everything else on the other. That gives me something in R3 but that’s okay. Plug in all the numbers, take the cube root and we get that you need to position that satellite 111 megameters out from the Moon’s center, flying at 296 meters per second. Think you can manage that?”

“Given the right equipment, sure. Seventy thousand miles out from the Moon … pretty far.”

“It’s about ¾ of the way to the Moon from Earth.”

“Cool. Does that R3 formula work for the planets?”

“Sure. Works for the Sun, too, but that’s so massive and spins so fast the sol‑stationary orbit’s half way to Mercury. An orbiter would have to fly 205 000 miles an hour to keep up with an equatorial sunspot. Flying something‑stationary over other planets offers problems beyond targeting the orbit, though.”

“Besides how long the trip would be?”

“Well, that, yes, but here’s another one. Suppose you’re going to Mars, aiming at an ares‑stationary orbit. It’ll be 20 megameters, 12500 miles from the center. You need to make your tangential injection at a Mars‑relative speed of 1439 meters per second. Problem is, you left Earth from a geostationary orbit at 3075 m/s relative to Earth. At the classic Hohmann positions, Earth’s going 5710 m/s relative to Mars, Somehow you’re going to have to shed 7346 m/s per second of excess speed.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Fly High, Silver Bird

“TANSTAAFL!” Vinnie’s still unhappy with spacecraft that aren’t rocket-powered. “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch!”

“Ah, good, you’ve read Heinlein. So what’s your problem with Lightsail 2?”

“It can’t work, Sy. Mostly it can’t work. Sails operate fine where there’s air and wind, but there’s none of that in space, just solar wind which if I remember right is just barely not a vacuum.”

Astronomer-in-training Jim speaks up. “You’re right about that, Vinnie. The solar wind’s fast, on the order of a million miles per hour, but it’s only about 10-14 atmospheres. That thin, it’s probably not a significant power source for your sailcraft, Al.”

“I keep telling you folks, it’s not wind-powered, it’s light-powered. There’s oodles of sunlight photons out there!”

“Sure, Al, but photons got zero mass. No mass, no momentum, right?”

Plane-polarized electromagnetic wave in motion
Plane-polarized electromagnetic wave
Electric (E) field is red
Magnetic (B) field is blue
(Image by Loo Kang Wee and Fu-Kwun Hwang from Wikimedia Commons)

My cue to enter. “Not right, Vinnie. Experimental demonstrations going back more than a century show light exerting pressure. That implies non-zero momentum. On the theory side … you remember when we talked about light waves and the right-hand rule?”

“That was a long time ago, Sy. Remind me.”

“… Ah, I still have the diagram on Old Reliable. See here? The light wave is coming out of the screen and its electric field moves electrons vertically. Meanwhile, the magnetic field perpendicular to the electric field twists moving charges to scoot them along a helical path. So there’s your momentum, in the interaction between the two fields. The wave’s combined action delivers force to whatever it hits, giving it momentum in the wave’s direction of travel. No photons in this picture.”

Astrophysicist-in-training Newt Barnes dives in. “When you think photons and electrons, Vinnie, think Einstein. His Nobel prize was for his explanation of the photoelectric effect. Think about some really high-speed particle flying through space. I’m watching it from Earth and you’re watching it from a spaceship moving along with it so we’ve each got our own frame of reference.”

“Frames, awright! Sy and me, we’ve talked about them a lot. When you say ‘high-speed’ you’re talking near light-speed, right?”

“Of course, because that’s when relativity gets significant. If we each measure the particle’s speed, do we get the same answer?”

“Nope, because you on Earth would see me and the particle moving through compressed space and dilated time so the speed I’d measure would be more than the speed you’d measure.”

“Mm-hm. And using ENewton=mv² you’d assign it a larger energy than I would. We need a relativistic version of Newton’s formula. Einstein said that rest mass is what it is, independent of the observer’s frame, and we should calculate energy from EEinstein²=(pc)²+(mc²)², where p is the momentum. If the momentum is zero because the velocity is zero, we get the familiar EEinstein=mc² equation.”

“I see where you’re going, Newt. If you got no mass OR energy then you got nothing at all. But if something’s got zero mass but non-zero energy like a photon does, then it’s got to have momentum from p=EEinstein/c.”

“You got it, Vinnie. So either way you look at it, wave or particle, light carries momentum and can power Lightsail 2.”

Lightsail 2 flying over Earth, against a yellow background
Adapted from image by Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society

“Question is, can sunlight give it enough momentum to get anywhere?”

“Now you’re getting quantitative. Sy, start up Old Reliable again.”

“OK, Newt, now what?”

“How much power can Lightsail 2 harvest from the Sun? That’ll be the solar constant in joules per second per square meter, times the sail’s area, 32 square meters, times a 90% efficiency factor.”

“Got it — 39.2 kilojoules per second.”

“That’s the supply, now for the demand. Lightsail 2 masses 5 kilograms and starts at 720 kilometers up. Ask Old Reliable to use the standard circular orbit equations to see how long it would take to harvest enough energy to raise the craft to another orbit 200 kilometers higher.”

“Combining potential and kinetic energies, I get 3.85 megajoules between orbits. That’s only 98 seconds-worth. I’m ignoring atmospheric drag and such, but net-net, Lightsail 2‘s got joules to burn.”

“Case closed, Vinnie.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Superman flying at lightspeed? Umm… no

Back when I was in high school I did a term paper for some class (can’t remember which) ripping the heck out of Superman physics.  Yeah, I was that kind of kid.  If I recall correctly, I spent much of it slamming his supposed vision capabilities — they were fairly ludicrous even to a HS student and that was many refreshes of the DC universe ago.FTL SupermanBut for this post let’s consider a trope that’s been taken off the shelf again and again since those days, even in the movies.  This rendition should get the idea across — Our Hero, in a desperate effort to fix a narrative hole the writers had dug themselves into, is forced to fly around the Earth at faster-than-light speeds, thereby reversing time so he can patch things up.

So many problems…  Just for starters, the Earth is 8000 miles wide, Supey’s what, 6’6″?, so on this scale he shouldn’t fill even a thousandth of a pixel.  OK, artistic license.  Fine.

Second problem, only one image of the guy.  If he’s really passing us headed into the past we should see two images, one coming in feet-first from the future and the other headed forward in both space and time.  Oh, and because of the Doppler effect the feet-first image should be blue-shifted and the other one red-shifted.

Of course both of those images would be the wrong shape.  The FitzGerald-Lorentz Contraction makes moving objects appear shorter in the direction of motion.  In other words, if the Man of Steel were flying just shy of the speed of light then 6’6″ tall would look to us more like a disk with a short cape.

Tall-Dark-And-Muscular has other problems to solve on his way to the past.  How does he get up there in the first place?  Back in the day, DC explained that he “leaped tall buildings in a single bound.”   That pretty much says ballistic high-jump, where all the energy comes from the initial impulse.  OK, but consider the rebound effects on the neighborhood if he were to jump with as much energy as it would take to orbit a 250-lb man.  People would complain.

Remember Einstein’s famous E=mc²?  That mass m isn’t quite what most people think it is.  Rather, it’s an object’s rest mass m0 modified by a Lorentz correction to account for the object’s kinetic energy.   In our hum-drum daily life that correction factor is basically 1.00000…   When you get into the lightspeed ballpark it gets bigger.

Here’s the formula with the Lorentz correction in red: m=m0/√[1-(v/c)2].  The square root nears zero as Superman’s velocity v approaches lightspeed c.  When the divisor gets very small the corrected mass gets very large.  If he got to the Lightspeed Barrier (where v=c) he’d be infinitely massive.

So you’ve got an infinite mass circling the Earth about 7 times a second — ocean tides probably couldn’t keep up, but the planet would be shaking enough to fracture the rock layers that keep volcanoes quiet.  People would complain.

Of course, if he had that much mass, Earth and the entire Solar System would be orbiting him.

On the E side of Einstein’s equation, Superman must attain that massive mass by getting energy from somewhere.  Gaining that last mile/second on the way to infinity is gonna take a lot of energy.

But it’s worse.  Even at less than lightspeed, the Kryptonian isn’t flying in a straight line.  He’s circling the Earth in an orbit.  The usual visuals show him about as far out as an Earth-orbiting spacecraft.  A GPS satellite’s stable 24-hour orbit has a 26,000 mile radius so it’s going about 1.9 miles/sec.  Superman ‘s traveling about 98,000 times faster than that.  Physics demands that he use a powered orbit, continuously expending serious energy on centripetal acceleration just to avoid flying off to Vega again.

The comic books have never been real clear on the energy source for Superman’s feats.  Does he suck it from the Sun?  I sure hope not — that’d destabilize the Sun and generate massive solar flares and all sorts of trouble.

Not even the DC writers would want Superman to wipe out his adopted planet just to fix up a plot point.

~~ Rich Olcott