Earth takes 365.25 days to complete its orbit around the Sun. Earth also travels at 67000 mph.

Asteroid 2001 US16 (also known as 89136) takes 577 earth days to complete it's orbit around the Sun.

To see the orbit of 2001 US16, go to its entry in the JPL Small-Body Database Browser.

At what time in the orbit of Earth would it be best to launch a rocket to 2001 US16 that can travel 36,000 miles per hour (~0.00038728 AU/h) to this asteroid?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Hi, and welcome to Space Exploration! The velocity of most spacecraft is continuously varying. It is unlikely that the craft in your question would travel at a constant speed. So it may not be very useful to state that your rocket "can travel" at a specific speed. Can you edit your question to provide more information as to why you chose that specific speed? $\endgroup$ May 3, 2018 at 1:37
  • $\begingroup$ Trajectories between two celestial bodies are determined according to the orbits of both. To read about how it's done, go to the Basics of Spaceflight chapter on Trajectories. $\endgroup$
    – kim holder
    May 3, 2018 at 13:32
  • $\begingroup$ please answer instead of pointing out my mistakes. Thank you. $\endgroup$ May 3, 2018 at 15:26
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @rabbitsjimmy Sorry if it seemed like you were being attacked. The community here is very proactive about trying to get to the meat of the issue. I have already addressed the issue with Uwe's comment, but I do not see any problems with Organic Marble's or kim holder's. Organic has offered a suggestion as to how you can improve your chances of getting a good answer, and kim is trying to point you toward a solution. $\endgroup$
    – called2voyage
    May 3, 2018 at 15:39
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, just so. As it is right now, the question is hard to answer in our brief format, because how trips between bodies work would need to be explained in general. Also, if one was to take a stab at trying to do that, it would be hard for someone else looking for that information to find it later. I am going to try an edit to the title to indicate what i mean. Feel free to change it or try other changes. $\endgroup$
    – kim holder
    May 3, 2018 at 15:43

1 Answer 1


To know when to launch to another body in our solar system, the first thing is to calculate based on the orbits of both bodies when they will be closest together. Rockets launch far enough before a close approach that will occur soon to be at the spot of the close approach when the destination body arrives. That holds true both for visits to other planets and to asteroids.

If you click on the Close Approach tab on the JPL page you linked to, there is one in 2034 when it comes to 0.03 AU of Earth. Or, there is one in April 2023 that comes to 0.33 AU, which is a lot farther, but on the other hand, there is a second close approach in September 2023. So if you are sending people, or doing a sample return mission, 2023 would be the one to go for (though it's awfully soon).

You can take that data and go to the Ames Trajectory Browser. Plugging in that NEO, and a date range that includes that close approach, gives the following result:

graph with one point showing a launch date for rendezvous with 2001 US16 and requirements

Here we see that if a rocket is launched on May 22, 2034, it could get to 2001 US16 in a bit less than 2 years, expending about 4.6 km/s of delta V once it leaves low Earth orbit.

The rocket's upper stage and/or the engines of the space probe would fire at least twice while performing that delta V (which means velocity change, both speeding up and slowing down). The engines would fire to break orbit with Earth and head in the right direction (which will be a curve, not a line), and would fire on arrival to brake and enter orbit of the asteroid. But such precision is pretty much impossible, so there are corrections made mid-way on the journey once further measurements and calculations have been done. That may need to be done a few times. Also, to land on the surface would require another burn, after the vessel has gotten into orbit around it.

Now, of course, there is a huge amount of complex calculation and knowledge behind this service Ames offers. To wit:

The Trajectory Browser uses a Lambert solver to compute transfer orbits. This solver is a standard method in celestial mechanics to find Keplerian orbits that connect two position vectors with a given time of flight. This solution assumes that the only gravitational force applied to the problem is given by the Sun. For more accurate results, the gravity fields of the connected bodies plus other perturbations such as solar radiation pressure and third body gravity effects need to be taken into account.

It is necessary to know the orbits of both bodies very, very precisely in order to come up with a result that will actually get a spacecraft close enough to such a small target, with so little gravity, for it to successfully enter orbit around it or land on it. If a mission was actually going to be launched, it would use something more like the Horizons system hosted by JPL. Entering the dates for arrival at 2001 US16 there generates an ephemeris like this:

table of orbital elements including delta, deldot, etc

(Among other things.) But more would still be needed, so the notice on their Ephemerides page would come into play:

Planetary ephemerides are available using JPL's HORIZONS system. Although the HORIZONS system will be sufficient for the vast majority of ephemeris requests, JPL planetary and lunar ephemeris files (e.g. DE406) are also available. The use of these ephemeris files is recommended only for professionals whose needs are not readily met by the HORIZONS system. Alternatively, you may use the NAIF SPICE toolkit and planetary ephemerides in SPK format from JPL's NAIF web-site.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.