3-axis stabilized spacecraft
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A spacecraft's attitude must be stabilized and controlled so that its high-gain antenna may be accurately pointed to Earth for communications, so that onboard experiments may accomplish precise pointing for accurate collection and subsequent interpretation of data, so that the heating and cooling effects of sunlight and shadow may be used intelligently for thermal control, and also for guidance: short propulsive maneuvers must be executed in the right direction.
Spin: Stabilization can be accomplished by setting the vehicle spinning, like the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft in the outer solar system, Lunar Prospector, and the Galileo Jupiter orbiter spacecraft, and its atmospheric probe. The gyroscopic action of the rotating spacecraft mass is the stabilizing mechanism. Propulsion system thrusters are fired only occasionally to make desired changes in spin rate, or in the spin-stabilized attitude. In the case of Galileo's Jupiter atmospheric probe, and the Huygens Titan probe, the proper attitude and spin are initially imparted by the mother ship.
3-Axis: Alternatively, a spacecraft may be designed for active three-axis stabilization. One method is to use small propulsion-system thrusters to incessantly nudge the spacecraft back and forth within a deadband of allowed attitude error. Voyagers 1 and 2 have been doing that since 1977, and have used up a little over half their 100 kg of propellant as of April 2006. Thrusters are also referred to as mass-expulsion control systems, MEC, or reaction-control systems, RCS.
Another method for achieving three-axis stabilization is to use electrically-powered reaction wheels, also called momentum wheels. Massive wheels are mounted in three orthogonal axes aboard the spacecraft. They provide a means to trade angular momentum back and forth between spacecraft and wheels. To rotate the vehicle in one direction, you spin up the proper wheel in the opposite direction. To rotate the vehicle back, you slow down the wheel. Excess momentum that builds up in the system due to external torques, caused for example by solar photon pressure or gravity gradient, must be occasionally removed from the system by applying torque to the spacecraft, and allowing the wheels to acquire a desired speed under computer control. This is done during maneuvers called momentum desaturation, (desat), or momentum unload maneuvers. Many spacecraft use a system of thrusters to apply the torque for desats. The Hubble Space Telescope, though, has sensitive optics that could be contaminated by thruster exhaust, so it used magnetic torquers that interact with the Earth's magnetic field during its desat maneuvers.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both spin stabilization and 3-axis stabilization. Spin-stabilized craft provide a continuous sweeping motion that is desirable for fields and particles instruments, as well as some optical scanning instruments, but they may require complicated systems to de-spin antennas or optical instruments that must be pointed at targets for science observations or communications with Earth. Three-axis controlled craft can point optical instruments and antennas without having to de-spin them, but they may have to carry out special rotating maneuvers to best utilize their fields and particle instruments. If thrusters are used for routine stabilization, optical observations such as imaging must be designed knowing that the spacecraft is always slowly rocking back and forth, and not always exactly predictably. Reaction wheels provide a much steadier spacecraft from which to make observations, but they add mass to the spacecraft, they have a limited mechanical lifetime, and they require frequent momentum desaturation maneuvers, which can perturb navigation solutions because of accelerations imparted by their use of thrusters.
No matter what choices have been made — spin or 3-axis stabilization, thrusters or reaction wheels, or any combinations of these — the task of attitude and articulation control falls to an AACS computer running highly evolved, sophisticated software.
Articulation: Many spacecraft have components that require articulation. Voyager and Galileo, for example, were designed with scan platforms for pointing optical instruments at their targets largely independently of spacecraft orientation. Many spacecraft, such as Mars orbiters, have solar panels which must track the sun so they can provide electrical power to the spacecraft. Cassini's main engine nozzles are steerable. Knowing where to point a solar panel, or scan platform, or a nozzle — that is, how to articulate it — requires knowledge of the spacecraft's attitude. Since AACS keeps track of the spacecraft's attitude, the sun's location, and Earth's location, it can compute the proper direction to point the appendages. It logically falls to one subsystem, then, to manage both attitude and articulation. The name AACS may even be carried over to a spacecraft even if it has no appendages to articulate.
- "Attitude and Articulation Control Subsystems (AACS)". Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Retrieved 2008-08-02.