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The JOOL Program: A Kerbal Space Program Story, Pt. 2

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KSP 2013-06-30 19-40-40-82

The JAMES (Jool Atmospheric Measuring Satellite) Mission

The first Kerbal mission of exploration to the gassy outer planet had been a tremendous success. The JEFF probe had completed all of its intended objectives, and had outperformed the expectations of its designers. The success of the mission convinced scientists and planners that larger, more sophisticated probes and missions could now be sent to study the planet. It also helped bring increased funds into the program, as the team behind it had demonstrated their capacity for success. This allowed for the possibility of more missions and gave the planners designing these missions more options to work with. The extra money also permitted the development and construction of new probe designs and launch vehicles.

The JEFF mission had been more of a technology demonstrator than a dedicated science mission. Though JEFF had returned a wealth of data, the scope and quality of its instruments was quite limited, and many of Jool’s secrets remained hidden. There remained an enormous amount of possible areas and things to study and observe, and the data already collected didn’t begin to touch the depths of knowledge which waited to be discovered. Scientists and astronomers studying Jool were already beginning to compete for instruments and experiment space aboard the probes. Scientists from different fields were eager to study different aspects of Jool, and thus lobbied to the mission planners for different mission objectives.  Some scientists were interested in the planet’s interior and atmosphere, as the gassy planet was unlike any other world in the Kerbal solar system. They hoped for a mission which would study the planet, its composition, and its weather in greater detail. Others were more interested in Jool’s moons, which the JEFF probe had revealed to be much more complex, unique, and full of surprises than had been expected. A number of scientists wanted to shift attention from Jool itself onto Jool’s moons, which they felt might hold even more dramatic secrets and discoveries. With the program’s future secured, planners began to seriously consider it’s timeframe and mission schedule for the first time. The needs and desires of scientists and astronomers were taken into consideration along with the technical accomplishments which needed to be achieved.

The first of these was achieving orbit around Jool. Any complete scientific study or observation would need to have long-term access to Jool, and this could only occur while in orbit.  Doing this, however, was much more challenging of a maneuver than JEFF’s flyby had been. In order to get into orbit, a probe must carry enough fuel to be able to lower its velocity around Jool and become trapped in its gravitational sphere of influence. The great distance to Jool means that much fuel has already been spent. Though probes had achieved orbit around the inner planets before, they were much closer to Kerbin than Jool and thus easier to get to. Ensuring that a probe would have enough fuel to get to and then achieve orbit around Jool was a major challenge which would need to be overcome. The alternative was aerobreaking  in Jool’s atmosphere. A probe flying through the dense atmosphere could be slowed enough to be placed into an orbit. This, however, could seriously damage the probe, and was thus unfavorable as an option. Planners also wanted to orbit and then land on one of Jool’s moons. This would be even more complex a maneuver than a simple orbit around Jool. With this in mind, it was decided that a probe designed to orbit, study, and image Jool would be sent first. The next probe would orbit and study one or multiple of Jool’s moons. A third probe would then orbit one of Jool’s moons and deploy a lander, which would land on and study the moon from the surface.

Plans for a science platform spacecraft had been in the works since early in the JOOL program, beginning shortly after the program was announced. Near the same time JEFF was flying past Jool and returning the first observations of the planet, a basic design for such a spacecraft was nearing completion. Once more money came into the program and planners decided upon the program’s mission schedule, the instruments and experiments to be carried aboard the spacecraft could be more selectively chosen. As it had been decided that the next mission to Jool would study the planet’s atmosphere, a number of specific instruments and scientific equipment designed for that purpose were installed. Complex cameras and imaging devices were also placed on the spacecraft. The complex space maneuvers needed to get into orbit around Jool required extra fuel, so  tanks were installed on the probe’s propulsion unit. Once designs were complete, the probe took a number of months to construct It was during this time that it was designated the Jool Atmospheric Measuring Satellite, or JAMES. JAMEs was installed aboard a new rocket designed specifically for the JOOL program, the Modular Attachment Transport, or MAT.KSP 2013-06-30 18-18-19-20The JAMES spacecraft. Attached to the engine on the bottom are a number of fuel tanks, used to place the craft into orbit around Jool. The upper stage above, with its four engines, allow for small maneuvers. The spacecraft’s four solar panels provide power. Along the top of the spacecraft are the numerous instruments and imagers used to study Jool. The array at the top of the craft is used to communicate with mission controllers on Kerbin.

The spacecraft was launched from Kerbal Space Center at 4 am, and went smoothly. The MAT rocket performed as expected, and placed the spacecraft into orbit 80 km above Kerbin. For 5 days and 19 hours the spacecraft stayed in orbit around Kerbin, activating and testing its instruments on the planet and its moon. The readings taken by the atmospheric instruments were compared to data collected by other satellites orbiting Kerbin, and were found to be identical. Mission controllers were convinced that JAMES was functional and ready to study Jool. The practice of activating a probes instruments in flight started with the JEFF probe, and became policy for the JOOL program. It was easier to discover a problem with a spacecraft and attempt a repair while in orbit around Kerbin than around Jool. 5 days, 19 hours, and 15 minutes into flight, the first stage reactivated and fired for 30 seconds, sending the spacecraft to Jool. It separated from the spacecraft, and the second stage burnt for another minute to place the probe into an encounter trajectory with Jool.KSP 2013-06-30 18-20-22-57JAMES blasts off from Kerbal Space Center aboard the MAT rocket  at 4 am on a mission to study the gassy outer planet of Jool.KSP 2013-06-30 18-33-48-10JAMES in orbit around Kerbin, testing its instruments and equipment.

JAMES’s launch, orbit around Kerbin, and transfer to Jool had gone perfectly, as had been the case with JEFF. The mission planners and scientists who had designed and constructed JAMES and its flight plan were incredibly proud of their continued success. However, soon into JAMES’s flight to Jool, a problem was detected. For some reason, the spacecraft was slowly losing power, even though all of its primary systems and instruments had been put into a hibernation mode for the journey. A series of preliminary checks did not reveal any technical problem with the probe, and planners began to fear the worst. It was possible that the craft had been damaged in flight by a micrometeoroid, or that the craft’s wiring and electrical equipment had been installed improperly. These possibilities would not be detected by any checks performed by planners on the spacecraft. Scientists and engineers quickly began to search for the problem and come up with a solution before the probe completely shut off.

Fortunately, the problem was quickly recognized: the solar arrays were not receiving any sunlight, and therefore not powering the spacecraft. It was determined that the probe was facing away from the Sun,  thus explaining the solar arrays’ inability to receive its rays. However, the arrays were supposed to rotate to face the Sun no matter what direction the probe was facing; for some reason, they were locked in place. In order to remedy this, mission planners decided to rotate the spacecraft to  face the Sun as it journeyed to Jool. This was an easy solution, but it was also an unwanted one: rotating the spacecraft required precious thruster fuel which mission planners had hoped to used to maneuver JAMES into different orbits around Jool.

104 days into flight, 99 days after JAMES had left Kerbin orbit, the spacecraft’s engine reactivated and burnt for 4 seconds. This brought JAMES into a closer encounter with Jool, which would help it enter an orbit around the planet more easily.  Then, 14 days later, the engine was fired again for another 13 seconds, which brought JAMES even closer to the planet. Finally, after 300 days in flight, the JAMES spacecraft entered Jool’s gravitational sphere of influence, and snapped its first images of the planet.KSP 2013-06-30 19-22-52-08JAMES captures its first images and takes its first measurements of Jool as it approaches the giant gassy planet.

As JAMES approached the planet, it began taking readings and measurements with its suite of instruments. When it reached its closest point to Jool, 5481 km above the planet’s top cloud layer, the probe’s engine activated and burnt for 2 minutes, slightly longer than was expected. This placed JAMES into a slightly elliptical orbit, with its farthest point from Jool almost crossing the orbit of Laythe, the innermost moon. The stage carrying JAMES’s extra fuel and engine then decoupled from the spacecraft, having been completely spent.KSP 2013-06-30 19-26-35-51JAMES’s engine fires as the spacecraft flies past Jool, placing the probe into a slightly elliptical orbit around the planet.KSP 2013-06-30 19-28-43-09JAMES’s orbit around Jool, which almost intersected the orbit of Laythe, Jool’s innermost moon.

Now in orbit, JAMES began a more intensive study of the planet and its atmosphere. The data sent back to scientists and astronomers on Kerbin was incredible valuable, and helped them vastly expand and refine their understanding of Jool. The probe studied the “Great Wisp”, a weather event on Jool which was visible from space. JAMES revealed this to be a massive storm, and continued to observe and measure the storm for the remainder of its mission.KSP 2013-06-30 19-32-14-46JAMES studies Jool’s “Great Wisp”, a major storm brewing on the top of the planet’s cloud system.

In addition to JAMES’s study of Jool, an effort was made to study and image the planet’s moons. JEFF had discovered that Laythe, the innermost moon of Jool, had a substantial atmosphere, and JAMES’s instruments were perfectly suited for the measurement and study of that atmosphere. JAMES’s close orbit with Laythe routinely brought it near the moon, and scientists made most of these encounters by focusing JAMES’s attention on it. It was discovered that Laythe’s atmosphere ends 52 km above the moon and is slightly less dense than Kerbin’s. The temperature on Laythe was found to be less than 0 degrees Celsius, so it was reasoned that the bodies of liquid on the moon must be comprised of something other than water. Attention was also given to Jool’s other moons, though JAMES’s distance from them meant that a more complete study and photography of them was impossible.KSP 2013-06-30 19-32-31-71While in orbit around Jool, JAMES studies Laythe during its closest encounter with the moon.     KSP 2013-06-30 19-29-59-41Jool’s more distant moons, Vall and Tylo, are imaged by JAMES. Vall, which had not been extensively studied or imaged by JEFF, was determined to be a large, icy world.

JAMES remained in orbit around Jool for a number of months, continuing to produce new data and discoveries for astronomers and scientists. Curiously, the spacecraft started sending back status reports which indicated that its orbit around Jool was degrading. Mission planners calculated that JAMES was being pulled out of orbit around Jool by Laythe every time the probe had a close encounter with the moon. They realized that the probe would soon escape Jool orbit, be captured by Laythe, and flung around the moon. There was much concern that JAMES might either smash into the moon or be sent flying into interplanetary space. Some planners wanted to use the last of JAMES’s fuel, which was storied within the spacecraft, to restore orbit around Jool. However, some astrophysicists, having spent days calculating possible trajectories and orbits for JAMES, realized that it could easily be placed into a stable orbit around Laythe as it was being flung past the moon. Once in orbit around Laythe, JAMES could study the moon in greater detail, while still taking observations and measurements of Jool. This option was lobbied for by some mission planners, who felt that placing JAMES into a stable orbit around Laythe permitted the continued study of Jool, and by the scientists who had hoped for a dedicated mission to study Jool’s moons. After much debate, it was decided that this option would be chosen.KSP 2013-06-30 19-36-36-38A view of JAMES’s orbit around Jool being altered by an encounter with Laythe.

As JAMES was flung around Laythe, its four small booster engines ignited and burnt for 45 seconds, expending all of the probe’s remaining fuel. Fortunately, this burn put JAMES into a stable orbit 140 km above Laythe’s surface. The spacecraft’s proximity to the moon allowed it to conduct much more detailed studies of its atmospheric composition, its surface, and its interior, and JAMES returned a wealth of information on Laythe to Kerbin.  Meanwhile, as mission planners had hoped, the probe’s study of Jool continued unaffected. The further distance from Jool proved to be a benefit for the study of the planet, because JAMES was able to more accurately and completely measure Jool’s magnetosphere.KSP 2013-06-30 19-40-26-55JAMES in orbit around Laythe.KSP 2013-06-30 19-40-47-02JAMES snaps a picture of Laythe and Jool  together in the same frame. This image would later be considered one of the most iconic and moving of t hose taken during the JOOL program.

The JAMES mission had, like JEFF, been an enormous success. Despite technical problems early in the mission, the probe managed to perform beyond all expectations, and returned a huge amount of highly valuable information and data on Jool and its moons. The mission initially intended to orbit Jool but, in a twist of fate and luck, the JAMES probe was able to also be placed into orbit around one of Jool’s moons, Laythe. This feat helped mission planners and scientists design the later JOOL program missions, which they wanted to have orbit Jool’s moons as well. The success of the JAMES probe, and the continued success of the JOOL program, made it one of the most popular and accomplished programs of space exploration the Kerbals had ever developed. Mission planners now turned their eyes and efforts to the more complex, more challenging, and more promising missions to Jool which were yet to be sent.

The JOOL Program: A Kerbal Space Program Story, Pt. 1

(Click on images to expand them)KSP 2013-06-27 22-49-17-51Background

For millennia, Kerbals gazed in wonder at their night sky. Early societies had a fascination with the movement and location of the celestial bodies, and studied them in great detail. They noticed how some points of light traveled across the night sky, and attributed mythological significance to them. These points of light, the planets, were recorded as they progressed along their paths across the night sky; complex sky charts were developed. As time and technology progressed the Kerbals studied these further and in greater detail. They realized and calculated that they must be quite close to Kerbin and perhaps orbited it or orbited the Sun. One of these points of light traveled far slower than the others. It was calculated that this planet must be much farther away. The invention of the telescope revolutionized their study of the planets. Its inventor, Jebileo Kerman, had a particular interest in this distant planet. One night, peering at it through his telescope, he discovered that it was orbited by other worlds, its moons. He described the planet as a “beautiful jewel, which graces the night sky as it passes by.” Through an act of accidental misspelling on Jebileo’s part, this planet was named “Jool”, and the name stuck. Though the planets were of great interest to Kerbals, they were limited in their ability to study them because of the basic technology of the time. Jool’s secrets continued to remained hidden.

The advent of the space age enabled Kerbals to study the planets in much greater detail and depth. Probes to the planets could perform a wide array of studies and observations, and could relay fantastic images back to Kerbin. Through much of the early space age, however, limited technology and inexperience forced the Kerbals to send missions to only the inner worlds. A number of probes sent to Kerbin’s moon and the inner terrestrial planets of Eve and Duna were successful, and these probes studied them extensively. As technology progressed, scientists turned their eyes towards Jool. A program was drawn up and designed for the spacecraft study of Jool. This program, aptly named Project JOOL, would hopefully enable scientists to unlock the mysteries the giant gassy outer world held and help them build a better understanding of the Kerbin solar system. JOOL, which stood for Jool Orbit Observation and Landing, was both the name of the world the program intended to study and the main goals of its designers. They hoped to study and photograph the planet and its moons in great detail. Space probes would be placed into orbit around the planet and possibly one of its moons. Eventually, a probe would be sent which would carry and deploy a lander which would land on one of these moons. Soon after the program was announced, work went underway.

PART 1: The JEFF (Jool Encounter First Flyby) Mission

Though it would take years for the more complex missions to be designed and developed, the first spacecraft sent to Jool took flight soon after the JOOL program was announced. In many ways, it was a precursor mission to the later ones. The probe was not actually designed or constructed for a mission to Jool. Instead, it had been a leftover 1.74 ton probe from early in the program to study Eve which was refitted and commissioned as a Jool probe. It had a basic and limited camera, but carried a number of instruments which could take complex measurements of the planet and space around it. It was intended that the probe intercept and fly past Jool, taking pictures of the planet and its moons and making measurements as it passed. It would then likely be flung out of the solar system.

KSP 2013-06-28 21-10-53-80One side of the JEFF probe. RCS tanks and thrusters are on the bottom, the solar panel is on the right side, the instruments and antenna array is on the left side. On the top is a small relay dish.

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Opposite side of the JEFF probe. On the right are batteries, on the left is the computer guidance device and a small electrical generator.

JEFF was launched from the Kerbal Space Center aboard a Warrior II-H Launch Vehicle at 11:25 pm. The launch vehicle and launch configuration was essentially the same as what it had been the case for the EVE missions. The launch went perfectly, and the Warrior II-H performed better than had been expected. JEFF was placed into a orbit of 90 km around Kerbin. It spent 11 days in orbit around the planet, during which time flight controllers ran checks to make sure all systems were nominal.

KSP 2013-06-28 21-22-51-82The Warrior II-H Launch Vehicle prepares for launch with the JEFF probe onboard.

11 days, 3 hours. and 6 minutes into flight, the rocket sprung to life and boosted the probe out of Kerbin orbit. The first stage’s fuel burnt through and was detached from the craft, and the second stage carried the craft towards Jool during a burn of 35 seconds.KSP 2013-06-28 21-25-18-25The launch vehicle lifting the probe into orbit around Kerbin. KSP 2013-06-28 21-58-42-39The second stage ignites, sending JEFF towards Jool.

As the probe left Kerbin’s sphere of influence, flight controllers turned it around and made it take pictures of Kerbin. These images demonstrated the probe’s imaging capabilities for the Jool flyby and also provided a fantastic look at the Kerbin-Mun system. The spacecraft now begun its long journey. 187 days later, the upper stage rocket relit and burnt for 5 seconds, placing the probe into a lower flyby altitude. KSP 2013-06-28 22-02-58-25

JEFF turns and images the Earth and the Mun as it leaves for Jool.KSP 2013-06-28 22-23-02-27 JEFF in flight towards Jool.

274 days after launch, the JEFF probe entered Jool’s gravitational sphere of influence. As it did, the probe oriented itself towards Jool and turned its instruments online. It began to continuously take photographs and stream them back to Kerbin. It approached Jool and took measurements and readings of its magnetic sphere, atmosphere, and gravitational pull. The moons orbiting it were also imaged and studied for the first time. The innermost moon, Laythe, was revealed to be a world with an atmosphere and an ocean. Tylo, the third moon, was measured to be as big as Moho, the innermost planet. KSP 2013-06-28 22-25-36-82

JEFF encounters Jool and produces the first images of the planet. KSP 2013-06-28 22-26-01-49

Approaching Jool. KSP 2013-06-28 22-26-59-10

Close encounter with the planet, with Laythe in the background.      KSP 2013-06-28 22-27-19-39

Laythe and Tylo imaged and studied.

The craft flew past Jool at a closest altitude of 250,000 km, and then was launched into a trajectory that would take it out of the solar system. As it left, it imaged the slowly receding Jool. The data collected by JEFF was invaluable for scientists back at Kerbin. A number of small moons were discovered orbiting Jool from a farther distance. The atmosphere of Jool was studied and reveled to be 138,000 km thick with a pressure of 15 atm. The photos that JEFF took were the first photos of Jool and its moon ever, and provided scientists with a trove of data and information about the Jool system. JEFF also demonstrated that it was entirely possible to send a complex probe as far as Jool successfully and receive adequate data. The experience gained from the flight was incredibly helpful to the scientists designing the plans and probes for the subsequent JOOL program missions.KSP 2013-06-28 22-27-50-40Jool receding into the darkness of space.

My Mission to the Moon: A Kerbal Space Program Adventure

“Kerbal Space Program”, a recently released computer game, is something in a league of its own. It puts you in the shoes of an engineer designing and constructing rockets, satellites, rovers, landers, capsules, space stations, and an array of other vehicles and crafts for the imaginary “Kerbal space program”. It also allows you to serve as the pilot of these crafts, letting you travel and explore the deeply detailed and complex “Kerbal” solar system. What makes this game so fantastic is the level of complexity, and also the simplicity, involved in it. The physics of space, and all of the complex gravitational maneuvers required to land a probe on another planet from ours, are fully simulated and represented. Yet you don’t need to be an astrophysicist to play this game to its fullest (though it wouldn’t hurt to be one, either!). There are many shortcuts and assistants which the game provides to allow someone without even the slightest grasp of astrophysics and rocketry procedures (myself included) to quickly jump into the game, build some rockets, slap on some probes, and begin exploring the universe.

I’ve been playing this game a lot recently, and it continues to blow me away. I want to share my experience in this game, and allow others to see the incredible things it allows you to do, by detailing a mission from start to finish. I’ll begin by building my rocket, guide you through the entire rocket building process, take you along on my journey to my destination, demonstrate the complexities of space travel and how the game represents them and aids you along, and we’ll finally end our journey together when my probe completes its mission. Let’s begin!

Welcome to the rocket assembly plant. This is where all the action before the mission takes place. It’s here where you pick and choose parts to build your rocket, your probe, your space station, whatever you want. For our mission, I want to land a probe on the moon. The ‘Curiosity’ rover’s landing on Mars this summer has given me some inspiration, and I want to replicate that amazing accomplishment in this game of mine. While some people playing this game actually have designed and flown rovers and probes which function and look like Curiosity, the complexity of that rover is a bit too much for me at the current moment. We’re going to have to settle for something a little more simple.

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KSP 2013-02-20 14-26-58-78How about this? I’ve put together a nice little landing probe. Attached are some solar panels, to provide it with a source of energy for when its deep in its journey and when it lands on the moon, some instruments and scientific gizmos to conduct research and take measurements, some light fixtures to illuminate our landing zone, some landing legs to provide us with a stable landing platform, and finally a nice little rocket and some fuel tanks to slow us on our final descent.

This lander will do a great job landing on the moon (I hope), but it won’t be able to get us there. For that we need to start attaching some rockets. I’m going to add to this probe a decoupler, which when activated will detach the probe from the parts below it, and then add a fuel tank and a rocket engine. Also included in the parts I’m throwing on the rocket are some RCS thrusters, which will allow me to make minute adjustments to my craft’s facing and direction while in space, and a SAS piece, which should provide my rocket with some stability while lifting off and prevent gyrations and other aerodynamic ‘wobbles’ which could ruin my liftoff. This stage should hopefully be powerful enough to transfer me from an orbit around our home planet into an orbit around the moon.KSP 2013-02-20 14-28-40-73This stage still isn’t enough to get us off the ground and into space. For that we’re going to need to pull out the big rockets. I’m attaching a major fuel tank to our smaller stage and the largest engine available to that fuel tank. I’m then attaching two other tanks and engines alongside the side of this fuel tank to provide us with even more thrust and fuel for liftoff. These extra tanks are attached with a decoupler, which will detach them from my rocket when they run out of fuel. To get an idea of what this will do, think about the Space Shuttle and its rocket boosters and how they detach after burning out. Something like that should happen for these fuel tanks. For good measure I’m also going to throw on some canards, which should hopefully provide us with some aerodynamic stability and lift while we’re on our way up into space. I reinforce all of the rocket with some metal rods, which should keep our rocket together in one piece, and we’re ready to go!

KSP 2013-02-20 14-33-19-78This is where it all happens. We’re sitting on the launch pad, waiting to lift off. On the left side of the screen is the information about my stages. Each of the separate stages are shown in a separate box, and each require separate activation to turn on. So, for example, I have to activate my two side engines first, followed by my central engine, and then, once they’re done burning, I need to activate the decouplers. The staging system in this game is really quite simple but allows for complex rocket functionality (as we’ll find out soon enough). The bottom of the screen shows my navigation ball; this provides me with all the navigation information I need to take my rocket and navigate it anywhere in the solar system. It’s quite intimidating at first, but once you get used to it it’s very straight-forward and incredibly useful. Finally, at the top of the screen is my altimeter, a gauge representing my vertical lift (which is useful in telling me if I’m going against the pull of gravity or being drug down) and a scale which shows how much atmosphere I’m still in (atmosphere slows a rocket considerably, so its useful to know when you’re still in or out of it).

KSP 2013-02-20 14-36-58-59Liftoff!

KSP 2013-02-20 14-41-31-82A few seconds later I activate my main, center rocket. By now we’re steadily gaining speed and lifting into the air. My engines are beginning to overheat, but that’s alright; so long as they aren’t pushed to the max, they won’t suffer any damage or lessened performance. I try to keep my rocket pointed straight up by following the alignment of my navigation ball.

KSP 2013-02-20 14-41-57-11Once we’ve hit a considerable altitude (for this rocket, about 30,000 meters), I begin to roll my rocket towards the east by navigating down the navigation ball towards the 90 degree marker. By doing this, I’ll be setting up an orbit which follows the rotation of the planet. This allows me to gain some extra momentum when trying to transfer to the moon. It’s complicated astrophysics stuff, but even a beginner like me, with enough experience, can pick up on some of these rocketry tricks.  turn the engines off. My engines are almost out of fuel, so I turn them off. We’re still gaining altitude, as we’re coasting towards the highest point of our orbit, the apoapsis. It is at the apoapsis where I will throttle my engines back up and try to circularize my orbit; the apoapsis is the point where the least energy and fuel is expended in return for the greatest adjustment to my orbit. KSP 2013-02-20 14-42-45-27Welcome to the map screen. Once you’re off the ground, this is where you spend much of your time. The line in blue is my current path; you can see that it will crash back into the ocean. I need to circularize my orbit, and by doing so actually create an orbit around the planet, by thrusting at my apoapsis. In order to do this, I create a maneuver at the apoapsis. The new orbit produced by this maneuver comes up in orange around my planet, and next to my navigation ball I’m given information about how far away I am from my maneuver point, where I will need to point my rocket during my maneuver, and how long I’ll need to burn my engines in order to accomplish my new orbit. It’s very intuitive, and even though I’m simply making a circular orbit right now using this process, I’m using the same tool which I would use to plan interplanetary transfers, land on other planets, and other very complex things.

KSP 2013-02-20 14-49-12-75After coasting for about a minute (which is how long it takes for my rocket to reach apoapsis), I align myself along the guideline presented to me on my navigation ball and begin to burn my engine for 20 seconds, the amount of time I’m told I need to burn in order to accomplish my new orbit. As I burn, the yellow bar next to my navigation ball begins to decline; this bar tells me how much more thrust I need to expend to achieve my new orbit.

KSP 2013-02-20 14-54-15-96Halfway through my burn, my two side engines run out of fuel. I detach them from my rocket, leaving me with just my center engine.  The discarded engine and fuel tanks will fall back to our planet, where they will be collected by the Kerbal Space Agency for reuse. To compensate for the decreased thrust I’m now putting out, I’m told I need to burn for a little bit longer.

KSP 2013-02-20 14-54-23-96A little bit longer into my burn, and my main engine runs out of fuel. I was hoping to be able to use it during my entire circularization burn, but I have enough fuel left in my upper stage to complete the burn. I detach the main fuel tank, which falls back to our planet, and continue my burn. Because my upper stage puts out much less thrust than the engines on the earlier stage, I need to burn for much longer.

KSP 2013-02-20 14-54-31-88As I expected though, I was still able to complete my maneuver, and I’m now in a fantastic orbit around my planet. Now I need to set up a maneuver to get us to the moon!

KSP 2013-02-20 14-55-02-61I do this by setting up another maneuver on my orbit (I told you this tool was incredibly handy!) This new maneuver will require me to burn my engines for 20 seconds once I’ve gone slightly passed my current orbit’s apoapsis. By doing this, as the new orange orbit line demonstrates, I’ll be in a path which will intersect the gravity of the moon. Once I’m in the moon’s gravity well, I’ll plan another maneuver to circularize my orbit around the moon and then bring my lander down to its surface.

KSP 2013-02-20 15-00-49-20As I maneuver my rocket into the position I need to be once I begin my burn by using my RCS thrusters, I also deploy my solar panels. This game simulates the electrical components of my spacecraft with much detail, meaning that I need to be sure my spacecraft gets energy or else it will power off in mid-flight and be unusable (which has happened to me before, and is quite annoying).

KSP 2013-02-20 15-03-33-52A dozen or so minutes go by, and we approach the point where we need to conduct our next burn. I retract the solar panels, because I don’t want them to get damaged during my burn, and because they’ve provided my batteries with enough energy stores to last us for a while. I’ll reactivate them once we’re on our way to the moon. The burn lasts 20 some seconds, and once it is complete we are on a trajectory which will bring us to the moon!

KSP 2013-02-20 15-06-33-19We’re on our way to the moon!

KSP 2013-02-20 15-08-48-21This game is also quite beautiful, and presents many opportunities for some fantastic photographs. Here our lander is on route to the moon, which stands small in the distance but is getting ever closer.

KSP 2013-02-20 15-09-18-43Three days go past as we’re in transit to the moon until we hit the moon’s gravity well. On the map, my current trajectory shows that I’ll smash head first into the moon! I’ve come in too directly, and the gravity of the moon will pull me straight into it. I thus create a maneuver which will bring me into an elliptical orbit around the moon before that happens; I should have enough fuel to be able to complete this burn and still bring us down for a nice landing.

KSP 2013-02-20 15-12-37-07I complete my burn, which takes only a few seconds, and am placed into an orbit around the moon which won’t result in my smashing straight into it. Meanwhile, I create a second maneuver which will bring me down onto the planet in the point of my choice; in this case, I want to land somewhere where my probe will be able to send messages to the home planet, and thus will be in sight of it. Of note is that my current orbit brings me as close as 5,000 meters to the moon at its periapsis, its lowest point. I’ll be hardly skimming its surface! This will allow me to take some fantastic pictures of the moon’s surface as I fly near; the scientists back home will be very pleased.KSP 2013-02-20 15-15-31-01Passing over the moon at our orbit’s lowest point as our planet slips underneath the horizon.

KSP 2013-02-20 15-18-10-62As I approach the point where I need to conduct my burn to get into a landing trajectory, I prepare my lander for landing. I extend the landing legs and retract my solar panels; they’ll be extended again once I land. I also extend my communications relays to send back information about my current journey to mission control. KSP 2013-02-20 15-19-36-76We’re now in landing mode. No longer can I rely upon the game providing me tools to calculate my orbital adjustments. I must do this all on my own. In order to slow my descent, I begin to burn along a guideline provided to me on my navigation ball which tells me where I must burn to decrease my orbit. I make sure that I burn enough to slow myself but not too much so that I quickly run out of fuel. KSP 2013-02-20 15-24-58-33This continues for at least a good minute. Coming down onto the surface is a slow and difficult task which requires careful maneuvering. One slip up, or if I run out of fuel too high, and my lander will become an experiment in impacting the moon’s surface at high speeds. KSP 2013-02-20 15-25-31-11At about 4,000 meters above the moon’s surface, the second stage of my spacecraft runs out of fuel. I detach it from my craft and it drops quickly to the surface of the moon; iIt has served me well. I was expecting it to run out of fuel as I slowed my descent, because one way or another I needed to detach it from my lander before the actual touchdown occurred. I now activate the rocket on my lander; it will do the rest of the work from here. The lander doesn’t have much fuel or much thrust, but in the vacuum of space the little thrust it does provide will be more than capable of doing the job. KSP 2013-02-20 15-25-35-64I slowly bring down my lander to the moon’s surface.

KSP 2013-02-20 15-25-55-79KSP 2013-02-20 15-27-23-04It requires careful maneuvering and a number of adjustments to the direction I’m pointed and the amount of thrust I’m producing, but after 2 minutes or so of landing, I touch down gently on the moon’s surface.

KSP 2013-02-20 15-27-41-50Mission complete! We’ve landed a lander on the moon!

KSP 2013-02-20 15-28-03-77 KSP 2013-02-20 15-27-54-99 It now begins taking measurements of the conditions on the moon and starts to relay that information back up to our home planet.

KSP 2013-02-20 15-29-00-05


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