Unit 6 : Elliptical Orbits Revisited : Transfer Orbit & Total Travel Time : Launch Windows : Unit Exam

Launch Windows To Other Planets

Now that we know how to get to another planet, how do we know when to head in the right direction. If we don't launch the spacecraft on the elliptical orbit around the Sun at the right moment, the spacecraft will miss the planet rendezvous and continue on its orbit around the Sun.

Luckily, NASA is pretty careful about planning their space flights as they proved with the Galileo Spacecraft as demonstrated below. What NASA refers to as a launch window generally has to do with some considerations such as these:

if the spacecraft is to reach a position in another planet's orbit at the same time as that planet reaches it, there must be a certain relationship between the position of the Earth and the position of the planet at the time of launch. By giving slightly larger or smaller boosts at each of the steps we have talked about in this course, it is usually possible to launch a spacecraft any time within an interval of a few days or a week (a.k.a. a launch window in time) and still manage a rendezvous without using excessive amounts of fuel. If a launch window is missed, it may be quite a while for the next launch window to be available.

So, now the question is, when do we leave?

We have already discussed the type of orbit (elliptical) and the size of the orbit (a perihelion of 1 AU and an aphelion of 5.2 AU). The obvious question that still needs to be answered is, "how long does it take for the spacecraft to get from Earth to Jupiter?" With that bit of information, we can compute where Earth and Jupiter must be in space, relative to each other, to establish when a launch window is available.

For the answer of how long it will take a spacecraft to reach Jupiter, we need to go back to Kepler's Third Law of planetary motion. In mathematical form it is P2 = a3 where we need to be careful to use years for P and AU for a.

Remember what the elliptical orbit of the spacecraft looks like when it heads to Jupiter.

We can find the long axis - the major axis - by adding 5.2 and 1 to get 6.2. The semi-major axis is just half that length, or 6.2 / 2 = 3.1 AU

The period is therefore:

P2 = a3

P2 = (3.1)3

With a handy calculator we can solve this: P = 5.5 years for one total orbit. To reach Jupiter (at aphelion in the transfer orbit) will take just half that time, or 2.75 years (one way on a 5.5 year round trip). If you go back and look at the launch date and arrival date for the Galileo mission to Jupiter you'll find that this is indeed how long it took to get there.

Finally, to finalize the plan, you have to find a date when the arrangement of Earth and Jupiter are right for the launch of the spacecraft with the knowledge of where the planets are relative to each other. For each possible launch date we can easily figure out where Jupiter will be 2.75 years later, and where the mission will be in Jupiter's orbit; the only good launch dates are those where the spacecraft and Jupiter end up at the same place.

You'll be learning how to use this information in Unit 7, where you will plan your own mission to a planet!