JPL DESCANSO - Deep Space Communications and Navigation Center of Excellence

From Topology to Space Missions: Astrodynamic Technology for the 21st Century

Presented by:
Dr. Martin W. Lo
Navigation and Mission Design, Section 312
Jet Propulsion Laboratory


Space exploration depends critically on new technology development. But for too long, technology has been identified with hardware, nuts and bolts; whereas ideas, theoretical developments, and mathematical advancements have been largely neglected. An example of the power of theoretical advancements is "chaos theory," which had a profound effect on the development of nonlinear trajectory design at JPL. It led to the Genesis mission's unique ballistic Earth-return trajectory, which requires no deterministic maneuvers after launch. It also led to the discovery of the InterPlanetary Superhighway. This consists of the collection of invisible tubes and conduits in space generated by the Lagrange Points, guiding the motions of asteroids, comets and spacecraft. The InterPlanetary Superhighway connects the entire Solar System from the Kuiper Belt all the way to the Sun. It provides a completely different paradigm of the Solar System from the Copernican model of isolated planets in Keplerian orbits. The InterPlanetary Superhighway played a profound role in the evolution of the Solar System and in the development of life on Earth. It probably played a similar role in extra-solar systems everywhere. It also has a surprising, deep connection with the design of low/continuous thrust trajectories such as for ion engines. All of this has resulted from newly developed computational mathematics and modern computers. We are entering a golden age in space mission design. New computational mathematical techniques are enabling the applications of profound mathematical concepts to engineering problems that just a decade ago would not have been dreamed of. Chaos theory is but the tip of the iceberg. This fledgling technology must be recognized and nurtured before its full potential may be realized. Such a program may be funded with just a fraction of the cost of a single medium-sized NASA mission, or a Star Trek Movie. The benefits and implications for the long-term development of space will be tremendous. It is the foundation on which we will build the new age of space exploration.

The Speaker

Dr. Martin W. Lo is a senior member of the technical staff in the Navigation and Mission Design Section. Lo received his Ph.D. from Cornell University and his B.S. from the Caltech in mathematics. As Mission Design Manager, he led the development of the trajectory for the Genesis mission, which recently launched and is on its way to the Sun-Earth libration point L1. He is currently leading the development of LTool, JPL's new mission design tool that uses dynamical systems techniques to design highly nonlinear trajectories. The Genesis mission is the first user of LTool. He is the organizer of the Lagrange Group, an international group of researchers and engineers from universities, NASA centers, and industry whose focus is on the development of nonlinear astrodynamics techniques with applications to space missions. His interests include mission design, the three-body problem, satellite constellation coverage analysis, dynamical astronomy, applied dynamical systems theory, and computational mathematics.