Permanent Human Settlement of the Earth, Space and Ocean Frontiers

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Let the Aerobraking Begin!

Right alongside gravitational assist, arobraking is sheer genius. Instead of bringing along thousands of pounds of fuel destined for a single exercise, why not use the atmosphere of the planet to slow your spacecraft down? In that way, all that fuel can either be eliminated or saved for adding years to the mission.

The first time I encountered the concept of aerobraking in any meaningful fashion was in the movie 2010. If you’ll remember, the Russian Spaceship Leoniv used the atmosphere of Jupiter to aerborake in a single, flaming pass. The ship employed ablative bags to absorb the energy. If you’ll also remember, it was a rough ride fior the crew. And how can anyone forget George Scheider hanging onto a frightened Natasha Shneider for the duration of the trip?

In any event, after all that lead-in, the story here is that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) began its first aerobraking maneuver last night. But quite unlike the flaming Leonov, the MRO is doing it gently, one pass at a time for six months. That way, the controllers can judge each pass for a perfect final orbit later this year. In this fashion, they don’t need a heat shield and there isn’t a crew burning up oxygen and consumables – so taking their time makes sense. The procedure slowly changes the MRO from a 35 hour, highly elliptical orbit to a two hour circular orbit. Aerobraking ends in November and then the science mission begins. Check it out here.