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A 1967-1968 Pitch to Launch a Comet Halley Rendezvous Mission within the Late Seventies

Comet Halley’s final go to earlier than the house age: a photographic plate captured at Yerkes Observatory on 6 June 1910. Picture credit score: Yerkes Observatory.

Herman Michielsen was a Senior Workers Scientist at Lockheed Missiles & Area Firm’s Palo Alto Analysis Laboratory in California in August 1967, when he offered a paper on attainable missions to Comet Halley to an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) convention in Huntsville, Alabama. His paper was the earliest critical work describing choices for exploring Comet Halley utilizing spacecraft throughout its 1985-1986 apparition, the primary that will happen for the reason that creation of spaceflight in 1957. 

Lockheed funded Michielsen’s Comet Halley analysis below its Unbiased Analysis Program, which gave its scientific employees alternatives to carry out research on firm time exterior their regular vary of labor. On the time he offered his Comet Halley paper, a lot of Michielsen’s work had centered on calculating lunar and planetary ephemerides utilizing superior computer systems and on Earth satellite tv for pc monitoring. He was an vital determine within the Unbiased Monitoring Coordination Program, which aimed to complement the restricted variety of skilled Earth satellite tv for pc visible observations with these of expert amateurs all over the world. 

Comet Halley requires little introduction; it’s the one recurrent comet the title of which is broadly recognized to non-astronomers. Observations of Comet Halley had been recorded in China as early as 240 BC. Not till the 18th century, nevertheless, was it understood that Comet Halley follows an elliptical Solar-centered path that brings it to a perihelion (closest level in its orbit in regards to the Solar) between the orbits of Venus and Mercury about each 76 years. 

The comet is called for Edmond Halley, the English astronomer who wrote in 1705 that comets noticed in 1531, 1607, and 1682 had been the truth is a single comet. Halley efficiently predicted that the comet would return in 1758, although he didn’t dwell to see its return.

Michielsen famous that short-period comets — that’s, any comet with a interval of 200 years or much less — are sometimes seen solely utilizing telescopes and barely present a tail. Comet Halley is a short-period comet however bucks this tendency, making it an object of curiosity for future exploration utilizing robotic probes. The Lockheed scientist predicted that its return in 1985-1986 would change into “a fruits level within the subject of cometary probes.”

Comet Halley is, nevertheless, not a perfect goal for a spacecraft as a result of it follows a retrograde path across the Solar. The good majority of Photo voltaic System our bodies orbit their major — the Solar, a planet, or any of the assorted classes of small physique — in a prograde path, which is to say counterclockwise. For its half, Comet Halley orbits the Solar clockwise. Michielsen referred to as this “an unlucky situation.”

Michielsen calculated that spacecraft on a prograde intercept path would encounter Comet Halley at Earth’s distance from the Solar (one Astronomical Unit, or AU) shifting at about 60 kilometers per second (km/sec) relative to the comet; at Comet Halley’s perihelion distance, 0.59 AU from the Solar, the relative intercept pace would exceed 90 km/sec. Excessive encounter speeds close to and at perihelion would imply {that a} probe might view the comet’s nucleus, which was anticipated to measure at most a couple of tens of kilometers throughout, for under a really quick time, making unattainable any in-depth observations when the comet was most energetic.

On the time Michielsen offered his work, most comet scientists favored astronomer Fred Whipple’s “soiled snowball” mannequin of the construction of the comet nucleus. It needs to be famous, nevertheless, that in 1967-1968 rival fashions had supporters. Confirming the character of the nucleus was among the many most vital justifications for comet exploration till the Eighties.

Michielsen proposed that an effort be made in time for the 1985-1986 apparition to put a robotic probe right into a retrograde Solar-centered orbit that will allow it to rendezvous with and journey beside Comet Halley for weeks or months. He wrote {that a} rendezvous mission would allow “a return of helpful information many orders of magnitude larger than that from even plenty of high-speed intercepts.” A rendezvous would, nevertheless, be extraordinarily difficult by way of propulsive power required.

A Comet Halley rendezvous may method feasibility, he wrote, if the rendezvous probe had been first launched into an elliptical Solar-centered orbit with an aphelion (farthest level in its orbit in regards to the Solar) at about seven AU (that’s, between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn, which orbit the Solar at 5.2 AU and 9.5 AU, respectively). He proposed a launch in 1978, with the probe approaching aphelion in 1982. 

Close to aphelion, the spacecraft would transfer comparatively slowly, so might place itself right into a retrograde orbit utilizing a propulsive maneuver (an “aphelion pulse”) that modified its pace by solely about 9.3 km/sec. Mixed with Earth-departure and fine-targeting maneuvers, the overall propulsive velocity change required to hold out a Comet Halley rendezvous in 1985 would quantity to about 31 km/sec.

Diagram of Comet Halley and rendezvous spacecraft paths throughout Michielsen’s aphelion-pulse mission. Please click on on picture to enlarge. Picture credit score: DSFPortree.

Different choices would allow a Halley rendezvous with even much less propulsive velocity change, Michielsen added. Departing Earth in 1973 would, for instance, trim the aphelion pulse velocity change by 2.5 km/sec. The 12-year flight time from Earth launch to Halley rendezvous may, nevertheless, be seen as extreme.

Within the early-to-mid-Nineteen Sixties, many planners thought-about the chances of propellant-saving gravity-assist maneuvers. Michielsen defined {that a} spacecraft launched on 13 September 1977 that handed in entrance of Jupiter on 16 September 1978 can be slowed and its course bent onto a retrograde path that will allow a rendezvous with Comet Halley on 27 Could 1985, 254 days earlier than its predicted perihelion on 5 February 1986. He additionally described a mission launched from Earth on 16 October 1978 that will encounter Jupiter on 14 October 1979 and rendezvous with Comet Halley on 10 September 1985, 148 days forward of predicted perihelion. 

Jupiter can be higher positioned for the gravity-assist flyby within the 1977 alternative, Michielsen added, thus lowering the required Earth-departure velocity and the rate at which the spacecraft would method Comet Halley. The propulsive velocity change from Earth departure via Halley rendezvous would whole 24.6 km/sec for the mission launched in 1977 and 25.6 km/sec for the 1978 mission. 

Michielsen then briefly explored the potential of a Saturn gravity-assist flyby, which he mentioned was steered on the August 1967 AIAA assembly by Maxwell Hunter, who was a Nationwide Area Council member from 1962 till he joined Lockheed in 1965. A Saturn flyby Comet Halley rendezvous mission launched from Earth on 30 August 1973 would require a complete propulsive velocity change of twenty-two.2 km/sec; one launched on 14 September 1974 would want 22.9 km/sec. Saturn flyby would happen on 19 January 1976 for the 1973 launch and on 14 January 1977 for the 1974 launch; Comet Halley rendezvous would happen on 18 April 1985 or 21 June 1985, respectively.

Within the second half of his paper, Michielsen gave shut consideration to the issue of exact prediction of Comet Halley’s return, and it’s on this context that his work is most frequently cited at this time. He famous that digital computer systems had enabled researchers to verify that the gravity of the planets — particularly, Jupiter, Earth, and Venus — had triggered Comet Halley’s orbital interval to differ by as much as 1000 days over the centuries. As well as, a non-gravitational impact — the reason of which he declared was past the scope of his paper — triggered a shift within the perihelion date of about 4 days throughout every of the six apparitions spanning the interval from 1456 to 1835. 

The non-gravitational impact Michielsen was loath to elucidate had been attributed to jets of fuel and mud that type when a comet nucleus is heated by the Solar. These jets would, it was believed, behave like pure rocket motors. This speculation would ultimately be confirmed, however the Lockheed scientist was most likely smart to deal with the possibly controversial downside as an pointless distraction when he offered his research of Comet Halley rendezvous strategies.

The shift in perihelion date meant {that a} Comet Halley probe launched within the late Seventies would want to carry out further propulsive maneuvers to make sure a detailed rendezvous. The magnitude of the maneuvers required would start to change into obvious, he predicted, in November 1983, when Earth’s largest telescopes would start to {photograph} Comet Halley between the orbits of Saturn and Jupiter at a distance of 8.5 AU from the Solar. Michielsen anticipated that, if reacquisition occurred at the moment, then a ample variety of observations might happen to make sure that maneuvers requiring a complete propulsive velocity change of simply 1.2 kilometers per second would yield a “worthwhile rendezvous mission.” Later reacquisition may demand a larger propulsive velocity change.

Because it turned out, the appearance of CCD expertise enabled reacquisition of Comet Halley greater than a 12 months forward of Michielsen’s predicted date. On 16 October 1982, observers utilizing the 200-inch Hale Telescope at Mount Palomar in California grew to become the primary people to glimpse Comet Halley since 1911. The comet, which had but to point out a tail, lay past the orbit of Saturn when it was reacquired.

Advances in astronomy expertise imply that Comet Halley has remained seen since its 16 October 1982 reacquisition. When it reaches perihelion in July 2061, it’s going to have been visually tracked for 79 years.

This publish is the primary in a brand new sequence referred to as “Making ready for Halley.” It goals to explain U.S. efforts to launch a spacecraft to Comet Halley in 1985-1986. The sequence is timed to coincide with Comet Halley’s aphelion passage late in 2023, after which it is going to be inbound for its 2061 apparition. Different posts on comet exploration related to Comet Halley missions in 1985-1986 might be discovered by following the “Extra Info” hyperlinks beneath. 

Comet Halley reacquired: CCD picture captured at Palomar Observatory on 16 October 1982. The circle was added to make faint Comet Halley stand out among the many background stars. Picture credit score: D. Jewitt & D. Edward Danielson, California Institute of Know-how.


“A Rendezvous with Halley’s Comet in 1985-1986,” H. F. Michielsen, Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets, Quantity 5, Quantity 3, March 1968, pp. 328-334; paper offered on the AIAA Steerage, Management, and Flight Dynamics Convention in Huntsville, Alabama, 14 August 1967.

Extra Info

Missions to Comet d’Arrest & Asteroid Eros within the Seventies (1966)

Cometary Explorer (1973)

A 1974 Plan for a Gradual Flyby of Comet Encke

Catching Some Comet Mud: Giotto II (1985)

The Problem of the Planets, Half Three: Gravity



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