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Playing Tennis on the Moon

September 10, 2005

Humans are heading back to the Moon. Tennis, anyone?

NASA — They call him the “Rocket Man.” Tennis pro Andy Roddick holds the world’s record for fast serves: 155 mph. By the time opponents realize where the ball is going, very often, it’s already gone. Ace! Roddick’s serve is much-feared around the US Open, which began this week in New York.

His groundstrokes are like rockets, too. And, believe it or not, that can be a problem. Balls hit so hard want to go long, flying straight out the back of the court. Out! It’s hard to win a game that way.

So what do you do when you’re so powerful? Roddick has a trick up his sleeve: topspin. By hitting the ball obliquely (at a slant), he causes it to spin. Topspin makes the ball curve downward. Instead of going out, it drops neatly into play on the other side of the net.

Now the Rocket Man is wondering, “What if the US Open were played on the Moon? Would topspin do me any good?” [video]

It’s a perfectly reasonable question. In 2004 when President Bush set out the nation’s Vision for Space Exploration, he declared “human beings are headed into the cosmos.” He never said, except for the tennis players. Where people go, sport follows. Decades from now, tennis might be a popular pastime on the Moon.

Picture this: Two space-suited athletes stare at each other across the net of a tennis court drawn in moondust. Their own reflections stare back from the faceplate of the opponent. Overhead, the sun is bright, the sky is black and Earth looks absolutely beautiful; it’s a crescent today.

One player tosses the ball up “¦ up “¦ up. Smash! Soundlessly, a 100+ mph serve glides across the net, long. Another serve, long. And another, long. Groundstrokes go long, too.

Something’s wrong. On the Moon, topspin doesn’t work.

Actually, the ball spins just fine, but spinning doesn’t make it curve downward. The Moon has no air, and spinning balls only curve when they’re flying through an atmosphere. (Note: Gravity causes balls to curve downward, too, but not enough to rescue every shot.)

Physicists call this the Bernoulli Effect: Air pressure on one side of a spinning ball is higher than it is on the other side. High pressure pushes the ball toward low pressure–hence the curve. Swiss physicist Daniel Bernoulli wrote down the equations describing this curious phenomenon in the 18th century, setting the stage for Andy Roddick’s devastating power game almost 300 years later. (The curve of the ball is also known as “The Magnus Effect” after the 19th century German physicist H.G. Magnus who studied forces on spinning balls.)

The Bernoulli (or Magnus) Effect is very important in sports. In baseball, it lets pitchers throw curveballs. In tennis and ping pong, it helps players ace their serves. In golf, it’s responsible for the dreaded slice.

Aside: Apollo 14 astronaut Al Shepard became the first extraterrestrial golfer on February 6, 1971, when he tried hitting some balls on the Moon. His club was homemade, consisting of a 6-iron attached to the end of a geology tool handle. “Unfortunately, the suit is so stiff, I can’t do this with two hands, but I’m going to try a little sand-trap shot here,” said Shepard. One shot, remarked mission control, “looked like a slice.” Shepard countered “Straight as a die!” In fact, the ball rolled just 2 or 3 feet. Later, Shepard did get off a good shot which famously went “for miles and miles and miles.” Practice makes perfect, especially on the Moon.

Moon tennis is going to differ from Earth tennis in many ways. For example: In the Moon’s lower gravity, only 1/6th Earth’s, lobs will fly six times higher and hang six times longer. Thirsty? Hit a lob. While it’s in flight you can go get a drink of water.

Here on Earth we have clay courts and grass courts. On the Moon there will be dust courts. The surface affects the style of play: clay is a slow surface, while grass is faster and prone to crazy bounces. A dusty surface will probably be slow, until it packs down a bit.

Moondust adds an interesting twist to tennis. For one thing, moondust is extremely dry and insulating, and thus prone to static cling (like a crackling sock pulled out of the dryer). Balls hit into this material over and over will soon gather a layer of electrified dust. Want to shock your opponent? Smash the ball straight at him!

There’s more: When a ball bounces off a mooncourt, it’s going to kick up a little dusty plume. Spin the ball just right and you could send that dust jetting toward your opponent, craftily blinding him. Topspin, or in this case, backspin, might come in handy after all.

And don’t forget the spacesuits. On Earth, players wear shorts and light shirts. On the Moon, they’ll be climbing into a bulky full-body pressure suit. As Apollo astronauts discovered, you don’t really “run” in a 1/6-g moonsuit, you “bound,” hopping around like Tigger of the Hundred Acre Wood. A player might spend more time off the ground than on it. (“Footwork!” cries your tennis coach. Footwork? How can you have footwork when your feet don’t touch the ground? Old-fashioned strategies might not work on the Moon.)

Furthermore, joints at the elbows, knees and especially shoulders of spacesuits are less flexible than real human joints. Overhead serves are going to be mighty difficult. Sorry Andy! Forehand or underhand serves, legal in Earth tennis, might be required on the Moon. Meanwhile, the backhand stroke could become extinct: it’s tough to reach across the body of a turgid spacesuit.

Eventually, special suits might be manufactured for moon tennis, designed to allow overhand serves, backhand shots, and normal running. The dimensions of courts could change, too, probably made bigger to accommodate no-Bernoulli serves and low-gravity volleys.

Low gravity. No topspin. Bulky spacesuits. Moon tennis is going to be different. Says Roddick, “”¦that might be kind of cool!”

Image credit: An artist’s concept of Moon tennis. Credit: Paula Vargas and Terry Longbottom of NASA/JSC. [video]

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On the Net:

NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration




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