Reaction wheel

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Reaction wheel00.jpg
A momentum/reaction wheel comprising a high accuracy Conical Earth Sensor to maintain a satellite's precise attitude

A reaction wheel (RW) is a type of flywheel used primarily by spacecraft for attitude control without using fuel for rockets or other reaction devices. They are particularly useful when the spacecraft must be rotated by very small amounts, such as keeping a telescope pointed at a star. They may also reduce the mass fraction needed for fuel. This is accomplished by equipping the spacecraft with an electric motor attached to a flywheel which, when its rotation speed is changed, causes the spacecraft to begin to counter-rotate proportionately through conservation of angular momentum. Reaction wheels can only rotate a spacecraft around its center of mass (see torque); they are not capable of moving the spacecraft from one place to another (see translational force). Reaction wheels work around a nominal zero rotation speed. However, external torques on the spacecraft may require a gradual buildup of reaction wheel rotation speed to maintain the spacecraft in a fixed orientation.

A reaction wheel is sometimes operated as (and referred to as) a momentum wheel, by operating it at a constant (or near-constant) rotation speed, in order to imbue a satellite with a large amount of stored angular momentum. Doing so alters the spacecraft's rotational dynamics so that disturbance torques perpendicular to one axis of the satellite (the axis parallel to the wheel's spin axis) do not result directly in spacecraft angular motion about the same axis as the disturbance torque; instead, they result in (generally smaller) angular motion (precession) of that spacecraft axis about a perpendicular axis. This has the effect of tending to stabilize that spacecraft axis to point in a nearly-fixed direction, allowing for a less-complicated attitude control system. Satellites using this "momentum-bias" stabilization approach include SCISAT-1; by orienting the momentum wheel's axis to be parallel to the orbit-normal vector, this satellite is in a "pitch momentum bias" configuration.

A control moment gyro (CMG) is a related but different type of attitude actuator, generally consisting of a momentum wheel mounted in a one-axis or two-axis gimbal. When mounted to a rigid spacecraft, applying a constant torque to the wheel using one of the gimbal motors causes the spacecraft to develop a constant angular velocity about a perpendicular axis, thus allowing control of the spacecraft's pointing direction. CMGs are generally able to produce larger sustained torques than RWs with less motor heating, and are preferentially used in larger and/or more-agile spacecraft, including Skylab and the International Space Station.


Reaction wheels are usually implemented as special electric motors, mounted along at least three directions: for example along the x, y and z axes provides no redundancy; while mounting four along tetrahedral axes provides redundancy.[1] Changes in speed (in either direction) are controlled electronically by computer. The strength of the materials of a reaction wheel determine the speed at which the wheel would come apart, and therefore how much angular momentum it can store.

Since the reaction wheel is a small fraction of the spacecraft's total mass, easily controlled temporary changes in its speed result in small changes in angle. The wheels therefore permit very precise changes in a spacecraft's attitude. For this reason, reaction wheels are often used to aim spacecraft carrying cameras or telescopes.

Over time, reaction wheels may build up stored momentum that needs to be cancelled. Designers therefore supplement reaction wheel systems with other attitude control mechanisms. In the presence of a magnetic field (as in low Earth orbit), a spacecraft can employ magnetorquers (better known as torque rods) to transfer angular momentum to the Earth through its planetary magnetic field. In the absence of a magnetic field, the most efficient practice is to use either high-efficiency attitude jets such as ion thrusters, or small, lightweight solar sails placed in locations away from the spacecraft's center of mass, such as on solar cell arrays or projecting masts. Most spacecraft, however, also need fast pointing, and cannot afford the extra mass of three attitude control systems. Designers therefore usually use conventional monopropellant vernier engines for all these purposes.[citation needed]


The failure of one or more reaction wheels can cause a spacecraft to lose its ability to maintain position and thus potentially cause a mission failure.

In 2002, a crew of astronauts from the space shuttle Columbia replaced one of the five reaction wheels on the Hubble space telescope.[2]

In 2004, during the mission of the Hayabusa spacecraft, an X-axis reaction wheel failed. The Y-axis wheel failed in 2005 causing the craft to rely on chemical thrusters to maintain attitude control.[3]

By May 15, 2013, two reaction wheels in the Kepler telescope had failed. If the failures could not be corrected, Kepler would not be able to maintain a precise enough orientation to continue its original mission.[4] As of August 19, 2013, engineers concluded that Kepler's reaction wheels cannot be recovered. Although the failed reaction wheels still function, they are experiencing friction exceeding acceptable levels, and consequently hindering the ability of the telescope to properly orient itself. The Kepler telescope has been returned to its "point rest state", a stable configuration which uses small amounts of thruster fuel to compensate for the failed reaction wheels. Kepler's team is considering alternative uses for Kepler that do not require the extreme accuracy in its orientation as needed by the original mission.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Attitude Control". Universität Stuttgart Institut für Raumfahrtsysteme. Retrieved 16 August 2013. 
  2. ^ "Team Hubble: Servicing Missions -- Servicing Mission 3B". Astronauts replaced one of the four Reaction Wheel Assemblies that make up Hubble's Pointing Control System. 
  3. ^ "Hayabusa". NASA. Retrieved May 15, 2013. 
  4. ^ Mike Wall (May 15, 2013). "Planet-Hunting Kepler Spacecraft Suffers Major Failure, NASA Says". Retrieved May 15, 2013. 
  5. ^ Hunter, Roger. "Kepler Mission Manager Update: Pointing Test Results". NASA. Retrieved 24 September 2013. 

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