Make straight in the desert a highway …

We hear these words of Isaiah in the Messiah and other church hymns this time of year. We are to clear a path in our souls for God’s return to us in judgement. But did you know we are discovering highways in space?

Any college sophomore physics student can solve the “Two Body Gravitation” problem in “closed form” mathematics, that is an equation of continuous variables that is good for all time and any distance or sized object. The orbit of two bodies with mass separated by a distance is trivial to solve. Add one more body to the mix and the problem can never be solved exactly. We have approximations and numerical solutions, but no, elegant, closed form equation exists that can solve the “three body” or the “N body” problem.

Imagine solving orbital problems for the solar system with nine planets and umpteen moons and asteroids. This is why computers are essential because the only solutions to these complex problems are numerical. Researchers have been studying paths through the solar system where the gravitational pull of various planets creates a preferred path for orbiting debris we refer to as comets, asteroids, and meteors. It turns out that these solar system highways enable travel ten or a hundred times faster than would be predicted by a body orbiting the sun alone would achieve. Future space missions may rely on these invisible highways to get there faster.

It is interesting to observe that even in the absence of the human desires of self-interest and competition, that even heavenly bodies all want to crowd into the commuter lane.

Note: For a wonderful visual example of mathematics, see the special case solution for the Three-Body Problem at

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