Posted in | Space Travel

Arches of Chaos Could Enable Super-Fast Space Travel

Global arch-like structure of space manifolds in the Solar System. Image Credit:

Astronomers have discovered dynamic channels or ‘aches of chaos’ within the solar system that could enable faster travel to both its inner and outer regions for future space missions.

A team of researchers led by Nataša Todorović, Astronomical Observatory Belgrade, Serbia, has found notable and unexpected manifold structures with the solar system. This architecture  —  created by gravitational interactions  —  in the fabric of space takes the form of a series of arches that spread out from the asteroid belt past Uranus and beyond.

These ‘arches of chaos’ promise to be important considerations in spacecraft navigation, as well as explaining the ‘erratic behavior’ of some comets. In fact, the dynamics of these space manifolds could allow a more speedy ‘grand tour of the solar system’ via an interplanetary transport network. And we’ve already seen this effect in action in objects around Jupiter.

It's no surprise that as the manifolds that comprise these arches of chaos are connected to gravity, the most extreme examples seem to exist around Jupiter, the solar system’s second most massive body. The team believes these manifolds, in particular, have a profound effect on the small bodies around the gas giant, which are known as the Jupiter Family Comets (JFCs), causing them to either collide with the planet or be ejected from that solar system entirely.

It appears from the trajectories of these ‘exiled’ objects that manifolds around Jupiter could have formed ‘a celestial autobahn’ that could allow quicker travel out to Neptune and beyond, says the team.

It should come at no surprise that Jupiter can induce large-scale transport on decadal time scales, as space missions have been specifically designed for Jupiter-assisted transport, with the flybys of Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 being cardinal examples.

The Team of Researchers Astronomical Observatory Belgrade, Serbia

Further to this, though, all the planets in the solar system could generate such manifolds, meaning that a ‘rapid travel network’ could exist in the solar system. The team’s research is published in the journal Science Advances1

Investigating Chaotic Navigation

In order to reach their conclusion, the astronomers collected data about millions of orbits in the solar system. The paper’s authors used a method known as the Fast Lyapunov Indicator (FLI)  —  which is a simple technique used to measure chaos  —  to detect the presence and global structure of space manifolds in these orbits. 

From here they captured a model of the instabilities on orbital timescales of just a few decades, rather than the tens of thousands to millions of orbital revolutions traditionally considered when examining solar system dynamics. They described the observed properties using a framework derived from the planar, circular, and restricted three-body problem (PCR3BP), which, whilst still not well understood, has been used to revolutionize spacecraft trajectories. 

Thus, the behavior observed in the study defines regions of fast-transport within the solar system. Using this system of ‘chaotic fast transport’ would depend on a number of factors as the chaotic motion is strongly determined by interactions between the intricate arch structures, and whether the manifolds that form them are stable or unstable. 

It may seem somewhat counter-intuitive to consider the idea that space itself has an intrinsic ‘structure’ but the finding is a consequence of one of the most important and well-verified theories in science. A theory that in the early 20th century revolutionized the way we think about space and time and our place within it.

The Structure of Spacetime

Einstein’s theory of general relativity (GR) introduced the revolutionary idea that gravity is a geometrical phenomenon that arises from the effect of mass on spacetime. This is often represented by a stretched rubber sheet upon which is placed balls of various masses. 

The greater the mass, the more ‘extreme’ the curvature. Thus, just as a billiard ball creates less of a curve than a bowling ball, the earth creates less of a curve in spacetime than Jupiter. But just like a microbe on the billiard ball would be unaware of the rubber sheet’s curvature, we are unaware of the curvature of spacetime.

The concept of spacetime taking various shapes that could appear ‘flat’ on a local-level led theoretical physicists to question what other complicated structures could exist in the fabric of space?

A manifold in spacetime would be a shape that at every point resembles a flat-surface, despite taking an overall more complicated shape. Manifolds could come in a variety of forms, from simples circles to intricate knots. 

As mentioned above, the existence of these ‘space manifolds’ and their deeper study explains the observation of chaotic behavior in cosmic bodies but also lends itself to be employed by space-agencies to speed up space travel. But, practical applications of this discovery promise more advantages than just the creation of a space-super highway.

In order to do this, researchers will now study the arches of chaos in greater detail. In particular, they will focus on one particular aspect of these manifolds — how they manifest around the Earth.

This Earth-centric study could not only be a boon to space-travel, and assist in the placement of man-made satellites, but it could actually help defend the planet. 

Understanding chaotic motion around the Earth that arises as a result of these structures could help space agencies like NASA develop more effective asteroid-impact mitigation strategies — especially those that take a gentler approach and thus require a long-lead-times. 

[The fact] that gravity assists can be enabled by manifolds is also well known to astrodynamicists. Yet, their widespread influence on natural celestial bodies has been largely undervalued and unexplored.

The Team of Researchers Astronomical Observatory Belgrade, Serbia


1 Todorovic. N., Wu. D., Rosengren. A. J., [2020], ‘The arches of chaos in the Solar System,’ Science Advances, [DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abd1313]

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Robert Lea

Written by

Robert Lea

Robert is a Freelance Science Journalist with a STEM BSc. He specializes in Physics, Space, Astronomy, Astrophysics, Quantum Physics, and SciComm. Robert is an ABSW member, and aWCSJ 2019 and IOP Fellow.


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