A low-energy transfer, or low-energy trajectory, is a route in space that allows spacecraft to change orbits using very little fuel. These routes work in the Earth–Moon system and also in other systems, such as traveling from Earth to Mars or between the moons of Jupiter. The drawback of such trajectories is that they take longer to complete than higher-energy (more-fuel) transfers, such as Hohmann transfer orbits.
Low-energy transfers are also known as weak stability boundary trajectories, or ballistic capture trajectories.
Low-energy transfers follow special pathways in space, sometimes referred to as the Interplanetary Transport Network. Following these pathways allows for long distances to be traversed for little change in velocity, or delta-v.
Missions that have used low-energy transfers include:
- Hiten, from JAXA
- SMART-1, from ESA
- Mars Orbiter Mission, from ISRO
- Genesis, from NASA.
- GRAIL, from NASA.
Proposed missions using low-energy transfers include:
Low-energy transfers to the Moon were first demonstrated in 1991 by the Japanese spacecraft Hiten, which was designed to swing by the Moon but not to enter orbit. The Hagoromo subsatellite was released by Hiten on its first swing-by and successfully entered lunar orbit, but suffered a communications failure.
Edward Belbruno and James Miller of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory had heard of the failure, and helped to salvage the mission by developing a ballistic capture trajectory that would enable the main Hiten probe to itself enter lunar orbit. The trajectory they developed for Hiten used Weak Stability Boundary Theory and required only a small perturbation to the elliptical swing-by orbit, sufficiently small to be achievable by the spacecraft's thrusters. This course would result in the probe being captured into lunar orbit using zero delta-v, but required five months instead of the usual three days for a Hohmann transfer.
From low Earth orbit to lunar orbit, the delta-v savings approach 25% on the burn applied after leaving low Earth orbit, compared to the retrograde burn applied near the Moon in the traditional trans-lunar injection, and allow for a doubling of payload.
For rendezvous with the Martian moons, the savings are 12% for Phobos and 20% for Deimos. Rendezvous is targeted because the stable pseudo-orbits around the Martian moons do not spend much time within 10 km of the surface.
- Belbruno, Edward (2004). Capture Dynamics and Chaotic Motions in Celestial Mechanics: With Applications to the Construction of Low Energy Transfers. Princeton University Press. p. 224. ISBN 978-0-691-09480-9.
- Belbruno, Edward (2007). Fly Me to the Moon: An Insider's Guide to the New Science of Space Travel. Princeton University Press. p. 176. ISBN 978-0-691-12822-1.
- "India plans mission to Mars next year". The Daily Telegraph. 16 August 2012. Retrieved 8 September 2012.
- Interplanetary Superhighway Makes Space Travel Simpler // NASA 07.17.02: "Lo conceived the theory of the Interplanetary Superhighway. Lo and his colleagues have turned the underlying mathematics of the Interplanetary Superhighway into a tool for mission design called "LTool," ... The new LTool was used by JPL engineers to redesign the flight path for the Genesis mission"
- "GRAIL Design at MIT Website". Retrieved 2012-01-22.
- "Spaceflight101 GRAIL Mission Design". Retrieved 2012-01-22.
- Frank, Adam (September 1994). "Gravity's Rim". Discover.
- Edward A. Belbruno and John P. Carrico (2000). "Calculation of Weak Stability Boundary Ballistic Lunar Transfer Trajectories" (PDF). AIAA/AAS Astrodynamics Specialist Conference.
- A. L. Genova, S. V. Weston, and L. J. Simurda (2011). "Human & robotic mission applications of low-energy transffers to Phobos & Deimos" (PDF).
- Celestial Mechanics Theory Meets the Nitty-Gritty of Trajectory Design
- Earth-to-Moon Low Energy Transfers Targeting L1 Hyperbolic Transit Orbit June 2005
- Low Energy Trajectories and Chaos: Applications to Astrodynamics and Dynamical Astronomy[dead link]
- Navigating Celestial Currents