The fastest path between Point A and Point B is a straight line. Not so fast, says a team of scientists and engineers who recently disproved this commonly accepted notion using a NASA satellite that had not moved more than 15 degrees during its 12-year mission studying the Sun.
In what may seem counterintuitive even to engineers, a team from the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, Calif., Draper Laboratory in Houston, Texas, and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., proved that the spacecraft actually rotated faster to reach a particular target in the sky when it carried out a set of mathematically calculated movements. These maneuvers looked more like the steps dancers would perform doing the tango, the foxtrot, or another ballroom dance.
“That spacecraft was dancing on the sky,” said Osvaldo Cuevas, the mission director of NASA’s Transition Region and Coronal Explorer (TRACE), the spacecraft that carried the experiment before NASA decommissioned it in September. Had TRACE sported a pair of legs, its steps would have traced roughly the pattern of a five-point star. Until the spacecraft’s debut on NASA’s version of “Dancing with the Stars,” TRACE stared steadily at the Sun producing millions of images of the corona, the Sun’s outer atmosphere that extends millions of kilometers into space and is nearly 200 times hotter than the Sun’s visible surface.