MadSci Network: Astronomy

Re: Is it possible to have a space probe launched perpendicular to solar system

Date: Mon Oct 23 14:08:15 2000
Posted By: Curtis Chen, Webmaster
Area of science: Astronomy
ID: 970986392.As

"Would you launch an ICBM horizontally?"
"Sure, but why would you want to?"
-- from The Hunt for Red October (1990)

No, you can't launch a spacecraft perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic to any interesting effect-- current technology can't provide enough thrust-- but you can slingshot around a large planet to put the spacecraft into a "vertical" orbit. On the other hand, why would you want to?

Remember your trigonometry. A spacecraft that travels perpendicular to the ecliptic plane will actually end up farther away from any planets it's trying to photograph. And these are astronomical distances, billions of miles between the outer planets.

In 1990, Voyager 1 recorded a 60-image "family portrait" of the solar system from outside Neptune's orbit and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic plane. However, because of the great distances involved, the results are actually rather boring.

The Ulysses spacecraft has traveled even farther out of the ecliptic plane, using Jupiter as a slingshot, during its investigation of the heliosphere-- the Sun's corona. Ulysses is not equipped with visible light sensing instruments.

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