In ancient times heavenly alignments foretold
doom. Nowadays they set the schedule for space exploration.
by Ron Kozcor
"Beware the Ides of March," the crone
intoned to the Roman dictator in 44 B.C. But Caesar, secure in his
divinity and power, ignored her and shortly thereafter was sent
from this Earth by some of his closest "friends." The position of
heavenly objects played a role in the assassination because, by
most accounts, it was an astrologer who foretold his demise. Emboldened
by her prediction, Caesar's assassins turned it into a self-fulfilling
"There was a similar case about 140
years after Caesar met his end," says Florian Himmler, a researcher
in ancient history at the University of Regensburg in Bavaria, Germany.
"On September 18, 96 A.D., the Roman emperor Titus Flavius Domitianus
was also sent packing by assassins -- some were his closest friends
and courtiers. His assassins chose the date and hour of his departure
based upon the position of the planets … including Mars, which
was positioned to make his 'divine protection' weakest."
Centuries ago monitoring the stars
and planets was a popular way to plan daily events. Some say it
still is! But the scientific method has shown that astrology holds
little, if any, predictive power. As a result the belief in astrology
is now far less universal than it was in Titus' day.
Gaius Julius Caesar was one of the most powerful men of his
time. He was assassinated at a time based on the location
of the planets and stars.
Nevertheless there are certain endeavours
that are absolutely dependent upon the positions of the planets.
In fact, some of our civilisations most advanced organisations,
like NASA and other space agencies around the world, sometimes do
nothing without first consulting the stars!
In this case, however, it's not for
luck. NASA's mission planners carefully check the heavens to assure
that their targets -- usually planets, comets or asteroids -- are
in the right place to make journeys there as short and inexpensive
chemical rockets like the ones that propel the space shuttle
have trouble escaping Earth's clingy gravity. Pictured: STS-101.
Such checks are rarely done in science
fiction. When Star Trek's Captain Kirk wants to go someplace
he never waits for a propitious alignment -- he just points the
Enterprise in the right direction and cries "Warp Speed, Sulu!"
Or in Star Wars, when Han Solo wants to travel to the Alderaan
District, he simply pushes a few buttons and off he goes.
Unlike the mighty vessels of Kirk and
Solo, however, our present-day space ships harbour limited power.
Even the awesome Saturn V rocket, which carried 45,000 kg to lunar
orbit during the Apollo program, didn't completely escape the pull
of Earth's gravity. (Remember, the Moon is trapped by our planet's
gravitational field and that's as far as the Saturn V went.) Nowadays
the space shuttle can haul about 25,000 kg into low Earth orbit.
Without extra propulsion built in, however, those payloads are still
tightly bound to Earth's gravitational field.
Of course, some real-life spacecraft
can reach escape velocity and travel to other worlds. Delta
2 rockets -- often used to send missions to Mars -- can loft about
700 kilograms free of Earth's gravity. But we can't send those 700
kg anywhere we want, for two reasons. First, such payloads remain
bound to the Sun's gravitational field. Even after escaping Earth,
they are still trapped within the solar system! Second, once the
rocket engine exhausts its fuel, which happens quickly for chemical
rockets, the payload can do little but coast in the direction it
Interplanetary coasting can take a
long time. The recently-launched 2001 Mars Odyssey, for instance,
will reach the Red Planet fully six months after it left Earth.
During that interval Mars will have moved one-quarter of the way
around its orbit. Clearly, it's vital that we understand not only
where the target is at launch, but also where it will be when the
spacecraft arrives. Present-day astronomers and mission planners
find themselves calculating planetary motions and alignments much
as their ancient ancestors did!"
Space ships can coast to Mars by following a Hohmann Transfer
Orbit. [learn more from JPL's
"Basics of Space Flight"]
NASA has been considering a human mission
to Mars for years. Larry Kos, a mission planner at NASA's Marshall
Space Flight Centre, notes that timing is everything. "The best
time to launch a mission to Mars," he says, "is usually a few months
before Earth and Mars are closest together -- a time astronomers
call 'opposition'. When Mars missions take off, they head toward
an apparently empty point in space. The planet isn't there yet,
but it will be when the spacecraft arrives." Of course, if humans
go to Mars they will need to come back, too. "For a return trip
we would wait 26 months for a similar Earth-Mars alignment and once
again launch a few months before opposition. That geometry would
minimise the return propulsion needed."
While Earth and Mars approach each
other every 26 months, their minimum separation varies over a 15
year cycle due to the elliptical nature of each planet's orbit.
Indeed, it can vary by almost a factor of two. Choosing the right
year to launch will have a significant impact on the propulsion
power required to fling a payload from Earth to Mars, and back again.
The next best times to go to Mars will
come in 2003, 2018, and 2020 -- years when Earth and Mars will be
unusually close together. Humans might finally visit the Red Planet
in 2018 or 2020, but alas, they won't travel there aboard vessels
like the USS Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon. Our first Martian
explorers will probably blast off on chemical rockets after intensive
calculations of capability, aim points, and timing. In that regard,
human exploration of Mars will begin as have so many other adventures
in history … only when the planets are properly aligned.