The following interview occurred June 2, 2002 between
former Genesis Mission Design and Navigation Manager and LTool
Manager Martin Lo and Senior Consultant Jacinta Behne, Mid-continent
Research for Education and Learning.
J.B. What is your role in the Genesis
mission design? What does your job mean for the Genesis mission?
M.L. I first started working on Genesis during the
proposal phase leading the mission design. The most important
aspect was the trajectory design. When Genesis was selected
as a Discovery mission, I became the manager for the Mission
Design and Navigation Team. At the same time, I was also leading
the development of LTool, the new tool used by Genesis for
its trajectory and mission design.
Around the time of the Genesis Critical Design Reviewa
major milestone for any space missionit became apparent
that the responsibilities for the two jobs were too heavy.
I decided to concentrate on developing LTool, which was crucial
for Genesis and where my expertise and knowledge can best
serve the Genesis mission.
The trajectory is a mathematically calculated path using
complex software. What we are working with is Newton's law
of gravity. Moving bodies always obey the laws of gravity.
We consider several bodies: the Sun, the spacecraft, and the
Earth. The moon is there too. It is extremely complicated
to find a path to take advantage of the gravity of multiple
bodies as in our case. Since we can't avoid it, we might as
well take advantage of it. Coming up with a trajectory design
is not a simple problem.
J.B. You are working with a branch of mathematics
called chaos theory. What new science or mathematics understanding
is your work providing to the Genesis mission? Why is this
M.L. For the Genesis mission, we want an orbit that's
always facing the Sun in order to continually collect particles
streaming from the Sun via the solar wind. This can be done
by using a "halo orbit" around the L1 Lagrange point. This
is a point between the Earth and the Sun where the gravitational
forces are balanced with all of the other forces. But this
balance is very fragile and unstable. It is the seed of the
"chaos" which we can use to great advantage.
Chaos is a bad thing if you can't control it or don't understand
it. But, like any powerful technology, properly understood,
"chaos" can be really useful. It can provide highly efficient
controls as well as extremely useful orbits which cannot be
computed with conventional orbit design methods. In fact,
we will use a connection between L1 and L2 predicted by chaos
theory which requires very little energy in order to bring
Genesis back to Utah. How little you ask? Well, believe it
or not, theoretically, if we performed the entire mission
absolutely flawlessly without any errors, once the Genesis
spacecraft is launched, the spacecraft will automatically
go into the L1 halo orbit, collect the solar wind particles,
and bring it all back to Utah right on schedule without firing
a single rocket engine!
But if you don't handle chaos properly, even if you just
breathe on the spacecraft, it can cause the spacecraft to
fly off and escape the Earth completely.
Chaos theory was invented by Poincare at the beginning of
the 20th century. It is really a part of something larger
called Dynamical Systems Theory. This has been known for a
long time by engineers intuitively. They had a seat-of-the-pants
understanding; they knew the phenomenon was going on and tried
to find trajectories that used it.
The work I do is good for the mission and it helps explain
many interesting phenomena in the Solar System. It explains
how comets in the Jupiter system get captured temporarily.
The Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet that crashed into the planet followed
The neat thing is, what is the Genesis orbit? It is a collision
orbit: you go out and bring things back to Earth. Some near-Earth
asteroids may follow the same path as the Genesis spacecraft.
In fact, some people think that the killer asteroid that caused
the extinction of the dinosaurs followed a path similar to
the Genesis trajectory. On the other hand, our knowledge of
this can be used in a constructive way. For example you could
use a small force to deflect them in particularly chaotic
regions. Or, even more fantastic, you could capture them permanently
for mining purposes.
J.B. That sounds like science fiction.
M.L. It does sounds like science fiction, but it is
really true. In fact, it's even more fantastic than you can
imagine. The halo orbits at L1 and L2 are actually "portals"
to a network of dynamical tunnels that connects the entire
Solar System. By jumping into the "hole" in the halo orbit,
you enter this vast and ancient labyrinth of tunnels and passageways
that connects the Kuiper Belt beyond Pluto to all of the planets,
all the way to the Sun. Instead of the picture that Copernicus
and Kepler gave us of planets in nearly circular orbits around
the Sun, isolated from one another, the solar system is alive,
breathing, and communicating, sending objects like comets
and asteroids from place to place throughout the Solar System.
I call this system of tunnels the "InterPlanetary Superhighway."
Now the portals and tunnels of the InterPlanetary Superhighway
may remind you of the "wormholes" of science fiction, but
they are not related. My portals and tunnels are honest-to-God
orbits generated by Newtonian gravity, which have been traveled
by comets and asteroids for billions of years. More recently,
we have started using them for space missions. On the other
hand, wormholes are really science fiction based on Einstein's
general relativity theory of gravity. Sometimes reality can
rival science fiction.
This has many serious implications. For one thing, the InterPlanetary
Superhighway plays a major role in the development of life
on Earth. Scientists are pretty sure that the chemical building
blocks of life came to Earth via comets and asteroids. As
we just mentioned, these objects can come to the Earth from
the Kuiper Belt, from the Asteroid Belt, and even from Mars
by following the paths in these tubular tunnels of the InterPlanetary
Superhighway. They also shaped and changed the way in which
life developed on Earth through spectacular crashes that caused
the extinction of species and enabled the rise of mammals,
which led to the development of humans.
The Genesis mission is perfectly named. Not only is the science
of the Genesis mission to study the origin of the Solar System,
but its trajectory has been the very means by which the life
building and life shaping objects have come to the Earth.
J.B. You are a mathematician, while many of the other
design leads on this project are scientists or engineers.
What is it like to work with people who are not mathematicians?
M.L. What makes my work exciting is sort of straddling
two worlds where each has its own techniques. Usually the
two don't talk. By being conversant with both, I can bring
them together. That is my main contribution. Mathematical
theory explains engineering and creates tools for solving
more engineering problems. The way science gets done is that
there is a real-world problem, which can be stated in an abstraction.
This leads to something else in the real world. The interaction
of the abstract and the practical is the most exciting part
of my job. I find beauty in the design of nature when highly
abstract ideas can be turned into useful engineering tools
to solve problems in the real world.
J.B. Besides the Genesis mission trajectory design,
what other work do you do at JPL?
M.L. I write proposals and studies for various missions.
I have done a little work on the Magellan, TOPEX, and Mars
Observer missions. Currently, I am working on a really exciting
project, the Terrestrial Planet Finder mission. Here we are
trying to fly a collection of five spacecraft in formation
to create a telescope with a diameter of the length of a football
field. One of the options is to fly this formation in a halo
orbit at L2.
I'm also working with the NASA Exploration Team to figure
out how to provide human servicing to missions such as the
Terrestrial Planet Finder mission. Sending astronauts to the
Earth's halo orbit is almost as difficult as it is to send
them to Mars. It takes 3 months in a harsh radiation environment.
I came up with an idea to put astronauts in a service station
in halo orbit around the moon's L1. It takes about three days
to get to the lunar halo orbit. It's a lot easier, faster,
cheaper, and safer to put people in lunar halo orbit. You
can just bring any of the spacecraft in an Earth halo orbit
back to the moon using the InterPlanetary Superhighway in
the Earth's neighborhood. It takes very little energy. After
the astronauts have worked on the spacecraft at the lunar
L1 service station, they can just send it back to its halo
orbit around Earth's L2 and it's good as new.
My other focus now is developing a new technology based on
this mathematical discovery. The name of the project that
I'm trying to implement now is LTool, which stands for Libration
Point Mission Design Tool. I have created a software tool
using dynamical systems theory. It is a relatively new thing
in the world of mission design. I should recognize that the
first people who applied this are my colleagues from the university
in Barcelona, Spain. In fact, there are many colleagues and
friends around the world who have helped me build this intricate
web of theory, tools, and applications. Genesis is perhaps
the highest expression of this effort.
J.B. What is your typical work day like?
M.L. I get breakfast on the run at about 8:00 a.m.,
rush to JPL, and then the meetings start. Between meetings
I dash to get e-mails and retrieve phone messages. These meetings
are interactions with people, which is very important. It
is there that I work with various teams doing different things
working on different problems. There are management problems,
technical problems, and coordination with other teams to see
if we can collaborate. I work closely with Cal Tech, Barcelona,
Purdue, UC Santa Barbara, U of Michigan, and U of Paderborn
in Germany. I call my collaborators the "Lagrange Group."
J.B. Are there any barriers to your work at the present
M.L. One barrier is how new this whole thing is and
trying to explain it to people and get them to accept it.
There is a start-up cost. It sounds frightening and very mathematical.
The concepts are easy to understand if explained properly.
With the proper tool, you don't need to know all the math
to get it to work properly.
Part of the problem is we're just beginning to understand
it ourselves. I want to carry our excitement to the general
community. I want to get more people involved in technical
pursuits, especially in math and space. It is not a dry, dead
J.B. What kind of education and career path led you
to become a mathematician?
M.L. My training is all in theoretical math. At Cornell
I took courses in differential topology and partial differential
equations and differential geometry. I almost never saw a
When I was graduating, the academic environment was very
difficult to get positions in. In fact, my thesis is based
on some of the profound work of the Nobel laureate, John Nash,
of the movie "A Beautiful Mind." My advisor told me only ten
people in the world would understand my thesis. That seemed
so esoteric; it really bothered me.
I discovered that I enjoyed the interaction between theoretical
math and real problemsan interdisciplinary approach.
At the time, my career path wasn't clear. I worked at Hughes,
and did NASA proposal work, and from there got to JPL doing
J.B. What is your home life like? What are your leisure
M.L. I have a cat that adopted me and my roommate,
Bill. His name is Clawdius. Actually he is a very sweet cat.
I have a large garden. I enjoy eating and cookingin
that order. You have to grow your own tomatoes and basil and
lemons. I do gourmet cooking. I like Chinese and Italian .you
know, Marco Polo. I love flowers too. I do Chinese calligraphy
and play classical piano.
J.B. What additional advice would you give to young
M.L. They really need to learn the basic skills like
language and mathematics very well and how to work with computers,
even if they want to do theoretical work. A broader knowledge
of other subjects is important. You never know where a problem
will lead you. When I was studying the algebraic topology
of manifolds at Cornell, I never imagined that I would use
it in any way besides doing pure research. But today, I am
finding that these esoteric theories can now be computed using
modern computers and software tools and applied to real-world
This changes everything. I believe we are standing on the
cusp of a new and exciting paradigm shift or sea change in
how we do engineering. I remember reading somewhere the comment
that we're still using essentially 18th century mathematics
in solving most engineering problems. But this is about to
change. This new combination of modern mathematical theory
with advanced computational tools is going to revolutionize
the space industry and engineering in general. Genesis is
a leader in this brave new world.
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