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Super-fast magnetic motor keeps tiny satellites on track

Engadget Engadget 25/07/2016 Jon Fingas
Celeroton's prototype magnetically levitating motor © Provided by Engadget Celeroton's prototype magnetically levitating motor © Provided by Engadget

Satellites often rely on reaction wheels, or constantly spinning flywheels, to tweak their attitudes without using precious fuel. However, they tend to be very delicate -- since they use ball bearings, they spin relatively slowly (under 6,000RPM), take up a lot of space, need tightly controlled environments and aren't very precise. Thankfully, researchers at Celeroton have a better way. They've created a magnetically levitated motor that achieves the effect of a regular reaction wheel with virtually none of the drawbacks. Since its rotor floats in a magnetic field, it can spin much faster (up to 150,000RPM) without wearing out, creating vibrations or requiring a special, lubricated environment. And given that it produces the same angular momentum as a much larger reaction wheel, it's perfect for CubeSats and any other tiny satellite where internal space is at a premium.

The motor is only a prototype at the moment, and it'll take a while before there's something commercially viable. However, multiple potential partners (including the European Space Agency) are reportedly interested. You may well see production satellites that can always adjust their positions, which might keep them useful well after conventional orbiters break down and become space junk.

ETH Zurich

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