Short on fuel, but good at astrophysics? It is possible to tour the solar system on less than 30 Altairian dollars a day by using the Interplanetary Transport Network (ITN).
The ITN is based on gravity assist manoeuvres and low energy transfer orbits around and between Lagrange points. Using the ITN, it is theoretically possible to tour the solar system with an exceedingly economic use of fuel as long as you have an abundance of patience and don’t mind taking an often circuitous route to your destination.
If you imagine the whole solar system as a rubber sheet which is warped by gravity wells, then the planets are really just small depressions of different depths pressed into the sides the Sun’s overarching gravity well.
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What’s important to this story is that the edges of those small depressions are nearly flat with respect to the otherwise steep slopes created by the Sun and the planets. It takes a lot less energy to move around on these flat edges, than it does trying to climb straight up the steep slopes.
The flat edge that is present around the Earth’s gravity well is land marked by Lagrange point 1 (or L1) lying directly between the Sun and the Earth – and Lagrange point 2 (L2) on the opposite side of the Earth directly away from the Sun.
It’s possible for a spacecraft to orbit a Lagrange point and be carried around the Sun with very little expenditure of energy. It’s because you are essentially riding the bow wave of the Earth as it orbits the Sun – so you are carried the Sun at the same orbital speed as the Earth (30 kilometres a second) without having to burn a lot of fuel in the process.
Also the Lagrange points represent junction points to enable low energy transfer between different planetary orbits. As though the solar system’s space-time curvature makes for a giant skateboard park, it’s possible to step off L1 and follow a trajectory down to Venus – or you can coast across the flat edge of Earth’s gravity well for about 3 million kilometres to L2 and then step off on a long winding path to the L1 of Mars. Here you might rest again before perhaps shuffling across to Mars’ L2 and then on to Jupiter.
Mathematical analysis of the gravitational interactions between three or four bodies (say, your spacecraft, the Earth and the Sun – and then add Mars too) – is complex and has some similarities with chaos theory. But such an analysis can identify interconnecting pathways right across the solar system, which ITN proponents refer to as ‘tubes’.
ITN principles have been adopted by a number of spacecraft missions to conserve fuel. Edward Belbruno proposed a low energy lunar transfer to get the Japanese probe Hiten into lunar orbit in 1991 despite it only having 10% of the fuel required for a traditional trans-lunar insertion trajectory. The manoeuvre was successful, although travel time to the Moon was five months instead of the traditional three days. NASA’s Genesis mission and the ESA’s SMART-1 are also considered to have used low energy ITN-like trajectories.
So impoverished hitchhikers, maybe you can still have that grand tour of planets by using the ITN – but make sure you pack a towel, it will be a very long trip.
(Recommended reading: Ross, S.D. (2006) The interplanetary transport network. American Scientist 94(3), 230–237.)