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News Release 05-168

Mathematics Unites the Heavens and the Atom

Transitions in celestrial mechanics

The comet Oterma does a complex dance with Jupiter, demonstrating celestial transitions.


September 29, 2005

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

In recent years, mathematicians have discovered an almost perfect parallel between the motion of spacecraft through the solar system and the motion of atoms in a chemical reaction--a hidden unity that has led to innovative new ways to design space missions.

The celestial half of this unity arises from the theory of "dynamical systems," which describes how a group of celestial bodies such as the Sun, the Earth and a spacecraft will move under the influence of their mutual gravity. It turns out that the tangle of gravitational forces creates tubular "highways" in the space between the bodies; if the spacecraft enters one of the highways, it will be whisked along without the need to use much propellant of its own.

The atomic half, meanwhile, arises from the theory of "transition states," which describes how atoms are transferred from one molecule to another during the course of a chemical reaction.

The unity exists because the same mathematical equations apply in both cases--which means that insights gained from analyzing one class of problems can help analyze the other. Indeed, when NASA was preparing for its recent Genesis mission to sample the solar wind, the agency planned the spacecraft's complex orbit with the help of specialists in atomic physics, such as mathematician Jerrold Marsden of the California Institute of Technology, engineer Shane Ross of the University of Southern California, and physicist Turgay Uzer of the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The work of all three scientists, who have received funding to study the field from the National Science Foundation (NSF), is featured in an article that appears in the Oct. 2005 issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society.

For more details, see the American Mathematical Society news release.

-NSF-

Media Contacts
M. Mitchell Waldrop, NSF, (703) 292-7752, email: mwaldrop@nsf.gov

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2022 budget of $8.8 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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