Turn This Way to Turn That Way

“I don’t understand, Sy. I get that James Webb Space Telescope uses its reaction wheels like a ship uses a rudder to change direction by pushing against something outside. Except the rudder pushes against water but the reaction wheels push against … what, the Universe?”

“Maybe probably, Al. We simply don’t know how inertia works. Newton just took inertia as a given. His Laws of Motion say that things remain at rest or persist in linear motion unless acted upon by some force. He didn’t say why. Einstein’s General Relativity starts from his Equivalence Principle — gravitational inertia is identical to mechanical inertia. That’s held up to painstaking experimental tests, but why it works is still an open question. Einstein liked Mach’s explanation, that we experience these inertias because matter interacts somehow with the rest of the Universe. He didn’t speculate how that interaction works because he didn’t like Action At A Distance. The quantum field theory people say that everything’s part of the universal field structure, which sounds cool but doesn’t help much. String theory … ’nuff said.”

“Hey, Moire, what’s all that got to do with the reaction wheel thing? JWST can push against one all it wants but it won’t go anywhere ’cause the wheel’s inside it. What’s magic about the wheels?”

JWST doesn’t want to go anywhere else, Mr Feder. We’re happy with it being in its proper orbit, but it needs to be able to point to different angles. Reaction wheels and gyroscopes are all about angular momentum, not about the linear kind that’s involved with moving from place to place.”

“HAH! JWST is moving place to place, in that orbit! Ain’t it got linear momentum then?”

Newton’s Principia, Proposition II, Theorem II

“In a limited way, pun intended. Angular momentum is linear momentum plus a radial constraint. This goes back to Newton and his Principia book. I’ve got a copy of his basic arc‑splitting diagram here in Old Reliable. The ABCDEF line is a section of some curve around point S. He treated it as a succession of short line segments ABc, BCd, CDe and so on. If JWST is at point B, for instance, Newton would say that it’s traveling with a certain linear momentum along the BCd line. However, it’s constrained to move along the arc so it winds up at D instead d. To account for the constraint Newton invented centripetal force to pull along the Sd line. He then mentally made the steps smaller and smaller until the sequence of short lines matched the curve. At the limit, a sequence of little bits of linear momentum becomes angular momentum. By the way, this step‑reduction process is at the heart of calculus. Anyway, JWST uses its reaction wheels to swing itself around, not to propel itself.”

“And we’re back to my original question, Sy. What makes that swinging happen?”

“Oh, you mean the mechanical reality. Easy, Al. Like I said, three pairs of motorized wheels are mounted on JWST‘s frame near the center of mass. Their axles are at mutual right angles. Change a wheel’s angular momentum, you get an equal opposing change to the satellite’s. Suppose the Attitude Control System wants the satellite to swing to starboard. That’d be clockwise viewed from the cold side. ACS must tell a port/starboard motor to spin its wheel faster counterclockwise. If it’s already spinning clockwise, the command would be to put on the brakes, right? Either way, JWST swings clockwise. With the forward/aft motors and the hot‑side/cold‑side motors, the ACS is equipped to get to any orientation. See how that works?”

“Hang on.” <handwaving ensues> “Yeah, I guess so.”

“Hey, Moire. What if the wheel’s already spinning at top speed in the direction the ACS wants more of?”

“Ah, that calls for a momentum dump. JWST‘s equipped with eight small rocket engines called thrusters. They convert angular momentum back to linear momentum in rocket exhaust. Suppose we need a further turn to starboard but a port/starboard wheel is nearing threshold spin rate. ACS puts the brakes on that wheel, which by itself would turn the satellite to port. However, ACS simultaneously activates selected thrusters to oppose the portward slew. Cute, huh?”

~~ Rich Olcott

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