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Mizzou software mapping paths to the planets

Above is a route to Saturn found by the interplanetary mapping tool that Mizzou Engineering Professor Craig Kluever helped develop. The route is a close match to the actual path taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, but took hours rather than months to devise. Image courtesy of Craig Kluever

A NASA probe’s flight to Mars may well seem a daunting undertaking to those who remember America’s initial efforts to send men to the moon.

Yet from Mizzou Engineering Professor Craig Kluever’s perspective, the current Mars mission is relatively straightforward. It’s NASA’s Messenger spacecraft, on its way now to Mercury using planetary gravity to guide it, that faces a complex task, in Kluever’s view.

Kluever is working to make those complicated jobs easier. Along with former MU graduate student Aaron D. Olds and Michael L. Cupples of Science Applications International Corp. in Alabama, Kluever has developed a software program that determines the best route for spacecraft interplanetary travel.

“Our software finds the best route by winnowing through possible paths using selection methods based on genetic evolution,” said Kluever, a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor.

The software is based on a survival–of–the–fittest process that uses random combinations of possible routes to determine the best interplanetary mission path, Kluever said. Existing interplanetary mission software requires more time and user experience to come up with the best route, he said.

Just what constitutes the best path can vary. The research team’s interplanetary mapping tool adjusts its routes based on how the user defines mission needs.

Sample routes show how beneficial the software can be, Kluever said. For example, the NASA Cassini mission route to Saturn—a six–year path involving several orbital maneuvers to obtain boosts from planetary gravity that took months to devise—can be calculated in a few hours with the new interplanetary mapping tool, Kluever said.

“Our software can find the route that takes either the least amount of time or the least amount of fuel to get to another planet, or it can find the route that maximizes spacecraft mass,” Kluever said.