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Ballistic Capture: New Method to Travel to Mars Cheaply, Easily and Safely

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Mathematicians have developed a new method called "ballistic capture," which could make future Mars travel cheaper, easier and safer than current options.

Exploring Mars has gained a lot of momentum in the last few decades. Many probes are already exploring the Martian surface while several spacecraft are hovering in the planet's orbit to know more about its atmosphere. It takes a lot of money and time to send spacecraft to Mars. Moreover, it has to be done only once within "launch windows" of 26 months, when the Earth and Mars are closest.

These two launch challenges could change if ballistic capture is made possible.

The new technique has been researched by mathematicians named Edward Belbruno of Princeton University and Francesco Topputo of Milan's Polytechnic University. Belbruno explains that the method requires a spacecraft to be placed in Mars' orbital path, ahead of the planet as it moves around the sun. A spacecraft using this method will decrease its speed slowly until dragged by the Red Planet's gravitational pull.

Traditionally, spacecrafts enter the orbit of a space body using Hohmann transfer. The conventional method involves a spacecraft, traveling at high speed, to hit the brakes hard and shoot retrorockets to enter the orbit. It requires extra fuel when hitting the brakes. However, as space agencies are becoming more conscious of the costs of space launches, ballistic capture may come to the rescue in future missions.

Belbruno claims that ballistic capture can reduce fuel needs by 25 percent. This reduction would not only save money but also enable bigger cargo such as equipment, probes and the like to be taken on future Mars missions.

Ballistic capture may also allow scientists to send rockets outside the launch window, lifting time restrictions and opening up more chances of holding Mars missions.

"It could be a pretty big step for us and really save us resources and capability, which is always what we're looking for," said James Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division.

Even though ballistic captures have some advantages over conventional ways, the technique also has some caveats. Travel to Mars usually takes about six months. However, ballistic capture may involve some additional months.

Although no manned Mars missions have yet been launched, various space agencies are hoping to send their astronauts to explore the Red Planet in the next couple of decades. Ballistic capture would require longer time in space, which means astronauts would experience longer space radiation.

Ballistic capture for Mars missions is still in its early stage. More work and calculations are needed to understand other factors, such as the gravitational pull from other nearby space bodies such as Jupiter.

The research paper was posted in the free database arXiv.

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