NASA’s Europa Clipper gets wheels for deep space travel

A giant spacecraft heading for Jupiter’s moon Europa uses four large reaction wheels to keep it oriented.

Just like NASA’s Mars rover relies on sturdy wheels to roam Mars and do science, some orbiters also rely on wheels (reaction wheels in this case) to point in the right direction. An engineer and technician at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California recently installed his four reaction wheels on the Europa Clipper during a voyage to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.

As NASA’s spacecraft flies into space, slips into orbit around Jupiter, and collects scientific observations while flying by Europa dozens of times, wheels spin the orbiter, antennas communicate with Earth, cameras and more. scientific instruments to maintain orientation.

The two-foot-wide, steel, aluminum, and titanium wheels spin rapidly, creating torque that spins the Orbiter in the opposite direction. Isaac Newton’s third law of motion also applies to the universe and explains the underlying phenomena. Reaction wheels make the spacecraft react to the rotation of the wheels.

While orbiting Jupiter, Europa Clipper relies on its reaction wheels to perform thousands of spins or “spins.” A spacecraft can use thrusters to perform some of these operations, but those thrusters require fuel. In other words, it is a finite resource on board the orbiter. The reaction wheels are powered by power supplied by the spacecraft’s massive solar array. The trade-off is that reaction wheels are slower. The Europa Clipper’s reaction wheels take about 90 minutes to turn the vehicle 180 degrees. The rotation of the spacecraft makes him three times slower than the minute hand of the clock.

Here’s how the reaction wheel works: Imagine sitting in a swivel chair and lifting your feet off the floor so you can rotate freely. Moving the torso in one direction rotates the chair and legs in the opposite direction. Reaction wheels work in the same way. When the reaction wheel motor accelerates the metal wheels in one direction, the spacecraft accelerates in the opposite direction. Without these reaction wheels, Europa Clipper, which arrived in the Jupiter system in 2030 after its launch in 2024, would be unable to conduct scientific investigations. Scientists believe that Europe has vast inland seas that may present favorable conditions for life. The spacecraft will collect data about the moon’s atmosphere, surface, and interior. This information will help scientists learn more about the ocean, ice crust, and plumes through which groundwater can escape into space.

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