Spacecraftthat need to fly in formation could use superconducting magnets rather thanusing reaction mass. Two groups of researchers are working on technology thatcould replace old-fashioned thrusters, which use jets of gas and Newton's Third Law.
The problem with using thrusters is that the reaction massis ejected to provide the effect; spacecraft can carry only a limited amount ofmaterial into orbit. Once the reaction mass is gone, the craft is left withouta means of maneuvering. Spacecraft could orientthemselves with each other using electromagnets.
David Miller of MIT's Space Systems Laboratory is testingthe idea using devices that float on a glass plate by blowing air down onto itto simulate the weightlessness of space (see video).
In spacecraft, arrays of solar cells would provide power forelectromagnets.
This method is not without problems; strong magnetic fieldscould disrupt delicate electronic equipment. However, shielding can be used inmost cases; also, small secondary electromagnets could be used to cancel the mainfield in small areas.
This technique could run into problems in Earth orbit; theEarth's powerful magnetic field would pull on the magnets, causing spacecraftto begin spinning. However, a group led by Shin-ichiro Sakai of the JapanAerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) thinks this problem could be solved byswitching the polarity of the magnets several times per minute, achieving adelicate balance.
We all remember how fleets of spacecraft are shown"parked" in formation (remember the "ragtag fleet" of Battlestar Galactica); this technology could provide away for spacecraft to fly in formation without expending fuel needed formaneuvering.
(This Science Fiction in the News story used withpermission of Technovelgy.com)
- Video Player: NASA's New Spaceship
- Video Player: Orbital Express
- Video Player: Space Rendezvous - ESA's ATV