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Next Exit 0.5 Million Kilometers

California Institute of Technology
  • Feature Articles


Covers 2002 number 4.indd 6 E N G I N E E R I N G & S C I E N C E N O . 4     7E N G I N E E R I N G & S C I E N C E N O . 4    The year is 2020. Under a crescent Earth, the assembly crew at the Lunar Gateway Service Area some 62,000 kilometers above the moon’s surface installs new electronics on an infrared telescope and sets it moving, at the speed of a Ford Pinto climbing an on-ramp, off to park itself deep in Earth’s shadow, where a little cryogenic coolant goes a long way and where Earth is always directly overhead for high-speed data downlinks. This spacecraft has, in fact, just entered what Martin Lo (BS ’75), a member of the technical staff at JPL, calls the Interplanetary Superhighway—“a vast network of winding tunnels in space” that con- nects the sun, the planets, their moons, and a host of other destinations as well. But unlike the wormholes beloved of science-fiction writers, these things are real. In fact, they are already being used. The Genesis mission, for example, is following a route that a team of scientists led by Lo plotted through the sun-Earth interchange of this freeway system. (In fact, this low-energy route helped JPL win the mission.) Genesis, of which Caltech professor of nuclear geochemistry Don Burnett is the principal investigator, is collecting samples of the solar wind—the torrent of charged particles that emanates from the sun, and whose makeup reflects that of the disk of gas and dust from which the sun and the planets condensed. In 2004, Genesis will bring its booty home the same way. (Well, technically not the same way, as it will return through the other side of the cloverleaf, as it were.) Lo, together with Caltech’s Jerrold Marsden, professor of control and dynamical systems (CDS), and their coworkers Shane Ross (BS ’98, a CDS graduate student) and Wang Sang Koon (a CDS senior postdoc) have begun a systematic mapping effort of what is more properly known as the Interplanetary Transport Network. As a freeway system, the

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