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NASA Space

Cassini's Elaborate Orbital Mechanics 116

jamie found an article at the NY Times about the extreme orbital mechanics gyrations required to extend the Cassini mission at Saturn by seven more years. Here's a graphic of the mission extension, which NASA took two years to arrive at. "The plans are for Cassini to keep working for seven more years, but it currently has only 22 percent of the maneuvering propellant it had when it started. Figuring out how to more than double the duration of the mission with less than a quarter of the fuel is hard. Cassini's orbital mechanics present an astonishingly complex exercise in Keplerian physics and geometry. The enormous array of science objectives and targets — moons, rings, Saturn itself — makes it one of the most complex missions ever flown. ... 'Without Titan,' Mr. Seal [Cassini's mission planning supervisor] said, 'we would go into one orbit around Saturn and be stuck there.' Thus Titan, in the argot of orbital mechanics, is Cassini's 'tour engine.' [T]he final 'reference trajectory' ... now includes 56 passes over Titan, 155 orbits of Saturn in different inclinations, 12 flybys of Enceladus, 5 flybys of other large moons — and final destruction."
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Cassini's Elaborate Orbital Mechanics

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  • Re:Units (Score:5, Informative)

    by sconeu ( 64226 ) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @01:40PM (#31913860) Homepage Journal

    delta-V is *always* measured in m/s. It's a change in velocity.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @01:43PM (#31913892)

    I have worked on this problem with a teacher at A&M that is working on this exact problem. Even in simple cases of move from here to here in more then 1 burn can not be numerically solved with current technology (damn computers too slow). So I worked on apply genetic algorithms and Lambert’s equation to solve for minimum delta V. These calculating become much more complex when you can enter a 3rd body (a moon) into this type of calculations.

    I have also talked with people at Johnson Space Center about this and they use programs like Matlab to determine the orbit maneuvers and another program I can't recall offhand for visualizing it.

  • by cmiller173 ( 641510 ) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @01:45PM (#31913918)
    The graphic said "In the series of 17 Titan flybys shown below..."
  • by smoothnorman ( 1670542 ) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @01:49PM (#31913950)
    "If all goes as planned, on Sept. 15, 2017, Cassini will die a warrior’s death, diving inside the rings for 22 spectacular orbits on the fringes of Saturn’s atmosphere before plunging into the planet." ...they hope to orbit inside the rings! that's just as cool as it gets outside of riding a comet out of the solar system.
  • Re:I call bullshit (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @01:50PM (#31913962)

    It's not padding. There's no way to know exactly how long your probe will function. Scientists take a guess (I mean use statistics) at what they expect the life of the probe to be and plan a primary mission itinerary. Anything else is a bonus. Considering there's no way to service these things after launch as well as the environmental stresses they must endure, I think scientists are doing a pretty good job.

  • by rotenberry ( 3487 ) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @02:07PM (#31914156)

    I had the good fortune to be working on the Galileo mission during its Mission Design phase. Many of the techniques used by the Cassini mission designers were developed for Galileo. Disclamer: I was not on the mission design team.

    First of all, the Voyager encounters with Jupiter and Saturn were always when the spacecraft were moving away from the sun. However, during the Galileo satellite tour the mission designers realized that the Galileo spacecraft could encounter Callisto, Ganymede, and Europa when moving away and moving toward Jupiter. Furthermore, the closest approach ("encounter") could be targeted to be either in front of the moon (with respect its orbit around Jupiter) or behind it. These choices allowed the designers a great deal of freedom to use the moons' gravity to shape the spacecraft's orbit. As I understand it, they did not just plan the current encounter to obtain the next encounter, but also the encounter after that.

    The ability to use a moon to shape a spacecraft orbit depends on the ratio of the mass of the planet to the mass of the moon (for all practical purposes the spacecraft is massless.) Only Io, Callisto, Ganymede, and Europa are able to provide gravity assists at Jupiter, and only Titan at Saturn.

    I spoke to Bob Mitchell, Cassini Project Manager, a few years ago and asked him about this specifically. He told me that while it was true that having to go back to Titan every time to change the orbit was a constraint, it also provided the freedom to send the spacecraft out of the "plane" where the moons orbited. At Jupiter it was necessary to stay in the plane to make multiple visits to all the moons, but since at Saturn you must visit the same moon to change the spacecraft's orbit every time (Titan) there is fewer reasons to stay in the plane. And, as you can see from the orbit diagrams, Cassini has traveled outside of the plane many times.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @02:14PM (#31914244)

    For the Juno mission, they have simulation of the orbits in nice 3D. More detailed information of what can be simulated in this paper from 2008. A video of the simulation is available from the Juno website:

  • Re:I call bullshit (Score:4, Informative)

    by blair1q ( 305137 ) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @02:14PM (#31914250) Journal

    No, they got their project picked out of the hundreds submitted for funding because they had a particular plan that met particular objectives.

    They engineered the spacecraft with normal margins over and above the basic requirements to allow for the sort of uncertainties that enter into designing every part of a device this complicated and limited in mass and power. One of the simplest of these is to put in twice as much fuel as your nominal model tells you to, giving yourself 100% margin to deal with exigent circumstances.

    This sort of margin is not just good for business, it's generally required by the funding authority (NASA and the government), because they got tired of being bitten on the ass by penurious aerospace craft design in the '00s. That's the 19'00s, not the 20'00s.

    Then, as the mission goes along, their managers and technical staff made careful decisions that didn't waste their fuel margins. The result is that they have a free spacecraft on-orbit with which to do new science. Which again they have to propose to the funding authority, since ground systems and personnel still cost money. The funding authority sees the variable costs as incredibly cheap compared with developing and emplacing a whole new device, so they give it a green light.

    A few months later, we get to see a pretty picture that blows the minds of the smaller-minded among us, and makes the bigger-brained among us yawn at the idea that anyone is impressed with 64 loops around a couple of rocks that aren't going anywhere fast...

  • by Nyeerrmm ( 940927 ) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @02:21PM (#31914316)

    From what I've seen (we had a seminar at my university about it recently) the JPL system for trajectory planning and spacecraft simulation all looks like Python.

    They have a backend framework of compiled C/C++ code with general components for building spacecraft, including different physics components (everything from standard gravity models to solar influences to atmospheric drag), and applying controls. Then they use Python to combine these into practical models for testing.

    Its probably not as impressive looking as in the movies, but they're able to pull out 'porkchop' plots (contour plots that indicate the minimum launch energy vs. launch time) and design complex trajectories in less than an hour.

  • by robot256 ( 1635039 ) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @02:35PM (#31914468)
    Problem is there aren't any parking orbits within range of the spacecraft. Those darn moons keep dragging you out of them. That's why they spent two years figuring out how to stay in orbit after as many "drags" as possible--and use them to our advantage. But you still can't stay in orbit indefinitely without any fuel, not at the low altitude Cassini is at now.
  • by necro81 ( 917438 ) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @02:39PM (#31914512) Journal

    The math is so complex though - you have to take relativity into account because time literally slows down the closer to a massive body you get. I've been reading a Brief History of Time lately and this shit is insane.

    By and large, unless you need super-precise calculations, you can rely solely on Newtonian physics to do orbital calculations. This makes the problem much easier to tackle computationally. The equations of motion cannot be solved analytically, but discrete simulations can be done to arbitrary accuracy extending out for years and years. Relativistic effects will appear as a small cumulative error, but it's small enough that it would probably require only a little more fuel to correct for.

    While Saturn is heavy compared to the Earth, the curvature it produces in spacetime is tiny in the grand scheme of things. Even for calculations where the Sun dominates, relativistic effects can safely be ignored in all but the most exacting situations.

    Put it this way: if relativistic effects mattered, then Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and others wouldn't have been able to work out the mathematics of non-relativistic orbital mechanics in the first place. Newtonian orbital mechanics is plenty accurate to predict the motions of the planets and other bodies to many decimal places over long stretches of time.

    About the only noticeable orbital relativistic effect that I know of in the solar system is a slight perturbation in the orbit of mercury that only became apparent after we'd been observing it for a few centuries. Relativity also comes into play in GPS, but that has a lot more to do with the precise timing of their radio signals than with their orbits.

  • by SleazyRidr ( 1563649 ) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @02:59PM (#31914728)

    I think you may be the one who needs a therapist...

  • by riboch ( 1551783 ) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @03:11PM (#31914888)

    It is probably MATLAB linked with Astrogator/STK.

    MATLAB has the standard integrators, plus it has a decent optimisation toolbox and STK allows for neat visualisations.

  • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @04:01PM (#31915586)

    You said they might just need to use a bit more fuel to correct, but the story also mentions that that they went to great lengths to preserve as much fuel as possible, so i still wonder if they needed to use relativity or not...

    Random variation in solar activity, random outgasing of surfaces, and random light pressure effects on decaying surface patterns/paints should totally swamp any relativity effects.

    There are also experimentally observed effects that have no current explanation. Perhaps they are just noise, perhaps not. The topics you need to search for are Flyby Anomaly and Pioneer Anomaly. That will give you enough background on the scale of unknown orbital forces to compare with the theoretical effects of relativity calculations. [] []

  • by gander666 ( 723553 ) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @04:51PM (#31916140) Homepage

    Ding. We have a winner. Orbital calculations, and optimizing on burn, delta-v and minimizing fuel consumption is really hard. I took a celestial mechanics course as part of my graduate work in Physics, and while I was really good at analytical solutions where they could be achieved, the aerospace engineers who couldn't solve a closed form integral equation to save their lives, could give outstanding solutions for Hohmann transfer orbits, LEO mechanics solutions, and many harebrained options. I was amazed at their creativity, while I was grinding really hard for closed form analytical solutions.

    This is brilliant stuff, and their creativity of minimizing the burns yet extending the mission is way cool.

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