Scientists have proposed a new method that will allow space shuttles to approach Mars through a significantly cheaper and safer way, Scientific American reported.
Dubbed as the ballistic capture, the move involves launching a spacecraft ahead of the Red Planet's orbit to take advantage of its gravitational pull.
The method was proposed by the scientists Edward Belbruno of Princeton University and Francesco Topputo of the Polytechnic University of Milan. Their study was submitted to the online scientific journal Celestial Mechanics and Dynamic Astronomy.
According to the two authors, ballistic capture is cost-efficient alternative to the traditional maneuver called Hohmann transfer. In the latter method, shuttles are launched when the orbits of Earth and Mars align, which occurs every 26 months.
Once the spacecraft gets close to Mars, it fires off retrorockets to act as brakes in order to enter the planet's orbital path. However, this involves burning hundreds of pounds of fuel and increases the risk of the shuttle overshooting its target or sending it crashing to Mars' surface.
On the other hand, the ballistic capture does not require space shuttles to rely on retrorockets. Instead, it flies ahead of Mars and straight into its orbital path. Through this route, the spacecraft will safely and gently approach the Red Planet with the help of its gravitational pull, PC Mag reported.
In addition, through the ballistic capture, space agencies aiming to launch Mars missions do not need to wait more than two years for the orbital window to occur.
"That's the magic of ballistic capture," Belbruno told Scientific American. "It's like flying in formation."
The scientists noted that although the ballistic capture method will allow space agencies to reduce the cost for fuel, other expenses such as launch preparations will remain the same.
But for James Green, NASA's Director for Planetary Science Division, the proposed move will make a significant impact on the allotted budget for Mars missions.
"It's an eye-opener," Green told Scientific American. "It could be a pretty big step for us and really save us resources and capability, which is always what we're looking for."