Which Way Is Up?

“OK, Moire, the Attitude Control System’s reaction wheels swing James Webb Space Telescope through whatever angle changes it wants, but how does ACS know what direction JWST‘s at to begin with? Does it go searching through that million‑star catalog to find something that matches?”

“Hardly, Mr Feder, that’d be way too much work for a shipboard computer. No, ACS consults the orientations maintained by a set of gyroscopes that are mounted on JWST‘s framework. Each one points along an unvarying bearing relative to the Universe, no matter how the satellite’s situated.”

“Gyroscopes? Like the one I had as a kid? Winding the string around the axle was a pain and then however hard I pulled the string I couldn’t keep one going for more than half a minute. It always wobbled anyway. Bad choice.”

“Not the JWST choice, NASA mostly doesn’t do toys. Actually, the gyroscope you remember has a long and honorable history. Gimbals have been known and used in one form or another for centuries. A few researchers mounted a rotor inside a gimbal set for various purposes in the mid‑1800s, but it was Léon Foucault who named his gadget a gyroscope when he used one for a public demonstration of the Earth’s rotation. People used to go to lectures like we go to a show. Science was popular in those days.”

“Wait — Foucault? The pendulum guy?”
 ”Wait — Foucault? The knife‑edge test guy?”

“Our science museum used to have a big pendulum. I loved to watch it knock down those domino thingies one by one as it turned around its circle. Then they took it out to make room for another dinosaur or something.”

“Yup. A museum’s most precious resource is floorspace. That weight swinging on a long wire takes up a lot of square feet. Foucault’s pendulum was another of his Earth‑rotation demonstrations, just a year after the gyroscope show. Yeah, Al, same guy — Foucault invented that technique you use to check your telescope mirrors. He pioneered a lot of Physics. He showed that the absorption spectrum of a gas when a light shines through it matches the spectrum it emits when you heat it up. His lightspeed measurement came within one percent of our currently accepted value. ”

Astronomer Cathleen shakes her head. “Imagine, 200 years after Kepler and Newton, yet people in Foucault’s day still needed convincing that the Earth is a globe floating in space. A century and a half later some still do. <sigh> Funny, isn’t it, how Foucault was working at the same time on two such different phenomena.”

“Not so different, Cathleen. Both demonstrate the same underlying principle — inertia relates to the Universe and doesn’t care about local conditions. Foucault was really working on inertia. He made use of two different inertial effects for his demonstrations. By the way, Mr Feder, the pendulum doesn’t turn. The Earth turns beneath the pendulum to bring those domino thingies into target position.”

“That’s hard to believe.”

“Could be why his demonstrations used two different phenomena. Given 19th Century technology, those were probably his best options.”

“If only he’d had lasers, huh?”

“One kind of modern gyroscope is laser‑based. Uses photons going around a ring. Actually, photons or pulses of them going around the same ring in opposite directions. When the ring itself rotates, the photons or pulses going against the rotation encounter the Start point sooner than their opposites do. Time the difference and you can figure the rotation rate. Unfortunately, Foucault didn’t have lasers or the exquisite timing devices we have today. But that’s not the kind of gyroscope JWST carries, anyway.”

“OK, I’ll bite. What does it use?”

“The slickest one yet, Al. If you carefully tap the rim of a good wine glass it’ll vibrate like the red line here. The dotted blue circle’s the glass at rest. Under the right conditions inertia holds the planes of vibration steady even if the glass itself rotates. People have figured out how to use that principle to build extremely accurate. reliable and low‑maintenance gyroscopes for measuring and stabilizing rotations. JWST carries a set.”

“Nothing to lubricate, eh?”

Portrait of Léon Foucault from Wikimedia under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

~~ Rich Olcott

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