# Explain the orbital physics of the JAXA Tether experiment?

• I
• SteveO33
In summary, the JAXA tether experiment will be using a cable to create an "artificial gravity" and slow down the larger mass, larger drag profile vehicle.
SteveO33
How is the JAXA tether experiment supposed to work in space? I hear the words, "it will act as a drag and cause early de-orbit". However, the tether is orbiting with the satellite (ATV) - same orbit, same speed (velocity), but with less mass and less drag profile than the Host Transfer Vehicle. So how does the tether "unfurl", how does it "change orbit" and how does it slow down the larger mass, larger drag profile vehicle? Thx.

The cable has certainly more surface area per mass than satellites, but that is not the point. They want to induce a current in the cable and de-orbit via interaction with the geomagnetic field.
Here is an animation, unfortunately just in Japanese, but with nice arrows drawn to show the current and forces (starting 4:30).

Confused_Owl
The point is that the two masses connected by a tether are NOT in quite the same orbit, but BOTH are constrained to the same angular velocity. The higher elevation orbit mass would normally (free fall) have less angular velocity, and the lower elevation orbit mass would normally (free fall) have greater angular velocity. This means that the upper mass is being pulled forward and the lower mass is being pulled back... the result is tension in the tether. The two tethered masses experience a small acceleration toward each other because their orbital angular speeds without the tether would be greater for the lower and less for the higher.
Because the upper mass is pulling back and the lower pulling forward, the line of the tether slants so that the lower mass is ahead of the higher with respect to the Earth surface (this was not really clear in the video; the tether is short).

So one utility of a tether is to create an "artificial gravity" at each mass with the upper pointing down/in and the lower pointing up/out... to get a substantial effect the tether needs to be on the order of hundreds of kilometers. Docking at the tether mid-point where there is no effect is easy and distribution of supplies to either end is simply letting the stuff slide "down" the tether to either end.

The tether (and the masses) in low Earth orbit are circling the Earth every 45 minutes and cutting a lot of magnetic field lines. With a tether comprised of a thousand conductive strands of hundreds of kilometers of individual length, the tether acts as a dynamo. Discharging the tether will raise or lower the orbital elevation of the center of mass of the whole system, depending on whether you discharge the upper or lower end of the tether.

Being able with sufficient planning to swing the system down low enough to intercept boosters and tanks discarded from launch vehicles (at about 90 miles altitude) would be a nice thing since these still have some fuel in them and can be used structurally for various things in orbit (like constructing structures at the ends of the tether itself...)

Confused_Owl and Al_
I need some confirmation here about how it really works. Changing the orbit of the space junk by hanging it on another ship will involve some Energy transfer. The circulation of charge via the released electrons and their capture on the tether will require some energy input but the energy for braking, due to the motor effect of the current through the conduction loop of electron gas plus tether is greater(? I have a nagging issue with Lenz's Law here). How much energy needs to be supplied with this method, compared with the equivalent energy required from a simple retro thruster?

Thrusters need fuel, which limits the size of the satellite you can de-orbit. Electromagnetic braking just needs solar cells and time.

Confused_Owl and sophiecentaur
mfb said:
Thrusters need fuel, which limits the size of the satellite you can de-orbit. Electromagnetic braking just needs solar cells and time.
OK, thanks. I wonder what the area is for the current loop that's involved. Ideally, an electron gun would be firing electrons at some optimal angle to make this area as big as possible. The Video doesn't seem to commit itself about that but I imagine they expect a significant number of electrons to make it to the far end of the tether.

Okay, looked at the animation... very interesting.. appears to show the tether is extending into a higher orbit (not sure how it got there?)... which I assume would have a longer and slower orbital period. So, the "higher" end of the tether would fall "behind", and the ATV-end of the tether, being in a lower, shorter and faster orbital period, would mover "ahead". The net affect would seem to be, the higher end would provide a pulling tension on the ATV and visa versa. Now what happens? Biggest mass wins? EMF wins? Tether is stretched and breaks, or tether is heated by EMF and melts? Or ATV and tether settle into the same obit? Or EMF drags them both down? Seems to be a lot of competing forces.

SteveO33 said:
Seems to be a lot of competing forces.
What 'wins' is the drag force on the current loop moving through the Earths Magnetic field and dissipating energy in the loop resistance.
It's disappointing that the actual numbers don't seem to be readily available. It would be very interesting to know what braking force could be achieved. That is the bottom line, after all. If the braking process were to take many months then the amount of junk shifted would hardly make the operation worth while. It strikes me that an alternative, triangular tether arrangement could be used to connect three suitable pieces of junk and let them get on with it. They would need to be arranged in a suitable orientation ( I think it could be made self stable). No Electron gun would need to be involved.

Thx sophiecentaur
The hope does appear clear from the experiment that EMF will win. Just don't see how. Once the tether is out, won't orbital differences be felt within one or two orbits. And isn't that time on the order of 1-3 hour duration? And wouldn't that cause some kind of orbital "rationalization" of the entire ATV-Tether structure? Can they really remain is different altitude orbits?

SteveO33 said:
EMF will win
What does that mean? It is not a Competition. If you provide a suitable path for an induced current to flow, induction will happen when the magnetic flux lines are cut and the resulting current will dissipate power in the circuit - producing a braking effect. The same would apply with a loop of wire. The two ends of the tether are kept apart because of fairly straightforward orbital Physics and the tether remains under tension, with the two ends at different orbital heights.
SteveO33 said:
orbital "rationalization"
You're referring to the equilibrium position of the two ends (?)- which is stable. Post #3 explains the mechanism.

bahamagreen said:
This means that the upper mass is being pulled forward and the lower mass is being pulled back
Not necessarily.
A vertical tether, where both ends orbit at the same angular velocity, is stable. It will be under tension, but nothing will move or pull forward or backward. You can have a rotating tether (more precisely: one that does not have bound rotation), but that is a different topic.
sophiecentaur said:
f the braking process were to take many months then the amount of junk shifted would hardly make the operation worth while.
Why? Having a satellite de-orbit within months instead of decades means the satellite will be gone soon. As long as the system works without continuous human input, a timescale of months is perfectly fine.
sophiecentaur said:
It strikes me that an alternative, triangular tether arrangement could be used to connect three suitable pieces of junk and let them get on with it. They would need to be arranged in a suitable orientation ( I think it could be made self stable).
You won't find three or even two larger pieces of debris in a suitable orbit. Every tiny difference in orbital elements will make such a structure impossible.

mfb said:
Why? Having a satellite de-orbit within months instead of decades means the satellite will be gone soon. As long as the system works without continuous human input, a timescale of months is perfectly fine.
It does tie up the disposal craft and its electron gun equipment for a long while, though. I was assuming that they would need to be re-usable, once the satellite orbit was sufficiently low.
mfb said:
You won't find three or even two larger pieces of debris in a suitable orbit. Every tiny difference in orbital elements will make such a structure impossible.
Is it not possible to 'shepherd' three objects into suitable orbits? I know this stuff is not intuitive so my idea may just be plain barmy.

Lots of good information, but I'm still stuck on the orbital mechanics side, so I put together a picture. The picture shows Orbit 1 of the ATV and notional Orbit 2 of the "end point of the tether". ATV Orbit 1 is lower altitude and faster orbital period. Tether End Orbit 2 is higher altitude and slower orbital period. So after an equal time period (as shown in the picture), the ATV in Orbit 1 is "ahead" of the Tether End in Orbit 2. And since the ATV wants to continue to go faster, but is tied to the Tether End, it will actually exert a force, F1, on the Tether End. Conversely, the Tether End in Orbit 2 does not want to go as fast as the ATV and so it will exert a force, F2, on the ATV. This is in addition to the previously discussed EMF forces. I'm suspecting that the orbital forces will be take a couple hours to be felt - tether must fully extend, etc. If the ATV-Tether was a rigid body, then center of mass and moment of inertia could apply, but they are not rigid at all. So my guess is that over time, the forces F1 and F2 would act the same as orbital attitude jets and would force the ATV and Tether End into a single orbital plane with the lower orbit, larger mass ATV being in the front and with the tether trailing behind. The final orbit, Orbit 3, would be very minimally higher than the original ATV Orbit 1.

sophiecentaur said:
It does tie up the disposal craft and its electron gun equipment for a long while, though. I was assuming that they would need to be re-usable, once the satellite orbit was sufficiently low.

Is it not possible to 'shepherd' three objects into suitable orbits? I know this stuff is not intuitive so my idea may just be plain barmy.
The satellite burns up with its payload. At least with the current plans.

I guess you could take a single defunct satellite, connect the tether, then use that to change the orbit to catch another satellite, then find some way to establish all three tethers. Sounds complicated. And I'm not sure about the efficiency. The current system uses the homogeneous field to get a force. A closed current loop would get a net force from the inhomogeneous part of the field only.
SteveO33 said:
ATV Orbit 1 is lower altitude and faster orbital period.
The orbital period is faster for an object in a free orbit. The satellite is not in a free orbit. You cannot use equations that assume no external forces (apart from gravity) to study a system where two things are connected by a tether.

SteveO33 said:
View attachment 112422
Lots of good information, but I'm still stuck on the orbital mechanics side, so I put together a picture. The picture shows Orbit 1 of the ATV and notional Orbit 2 of the "end point of the tether". ATV Orbit 1 is lower altitude and faster orbital period. Tether End Orbit 2 is higher altitude and slower orbital period. So after an equal time period (as shown in the picture), the ATV in Orbit 1 is "ahead" of the Tether End in Orbit 2. And since the ATV wants to continue to go faster, but is tied to the Tether End, it will actually exert a force, F1, on the Tether End. Conversely, the Tether End in Orbit 2 does not want to go as fast as the ATV and so it will exert a force, F2, on the ATV. This is in addition to the previously discussed EMF forces. I'm suspecting that the orbital forces will be take a couple hours to be felt - tether must fully extend, etc. If the ATV-Tether was a rigid body, then center of mass and moment of inertia could apply, but they are not rigid at all. So my guess is that over time, the forces F1 and F2 would act the same as orbital attitude jets and would force the ATV and Tether End into a single orbital plane with the lower orbit, larger mass ATV being in the front and with the tether trailing behind. The final orbit, Orbit 3, would be very minimally higher than the original ATV Orbit 1.
No. the forces involved will pull the tethers so that they point away from and towards the Earth. This is known as gravity-gradient stabilization or tidal stabilization.
It has been used before to maintain satellites' orientation with respect to the Earth.

Ah, interesting reference - gravity-gradient stabilization... So, the rigid example would seem to be achievable.. It's a fixed body... But the tether does not, and oddly enough, the success of tether experiments have been abysmal. In fact I could not find an example of a successful tether model - and from recent posts from JAXA, that may include their effort as well. Is it possible that the physics of the tethered version are not really known or perhaps flawed?

What?
This stabilization method works well. Many satellites use it, the ISS also uses it. You don't need a long tether if you just want to stabilize the orientation.

All this is Newtonian mechanics, and known exactly for hundreds of years.

Okay, I did not realize that ISS used tethers for stabilization. Do you have any references to successful tether-based stabilization?

The ISS does not use tethers, but they have been discussed to increase the stability, and as propulsion method.
Some slides

I misremembered the ISS configuration. It is in an unstable equilibrium with respect to the gravity gradient.

Now we're getting somewhere. Appreciate the slides MFB - very illuminating in many ways. Probably first is their age - 10-15 years old. I know the physics of this hasn't changed in that time, but I suspect that the "Tether" is much more an Applied Physics and Engineering challenge as opposed to any kind of theoretical discovery. And I'm guessing that the Applied Physics is pretty complex and largely unsolved since it's not on the ISS, and basically not in broad application (if really any at all?). Not to mention that the publicized Tether Test efforts have been largely unsuccessful. Second, and maybe this is where the Tether De-Orbit comes into play, all of NASA's slide-ware examples were using Tethers to gather charge to power Ion Engines to Boost or Change Inclination of the orbit. It also showed Upward, Downward and maybe even Sideways configuration of great mass - 1,000Kg and tremendous length - 50 Km, but none were De-Orbiters. So, perhaps if we accepted as you say, the Newtonian Physics of this is well established, and tried to figure out how to apply them to the Tether Challenge, maybe one of these Tether Experiments would actually work to de-orbit a dead satellite?

The gravitational interaction alone doesn't change the tether orbit. The change in orbit comes from the interaction with the magnetic field of Earth, and that can de-orbit satellites.

Tethers in space are hard, but everything in space is hard. Thrusters have been used for decades, so they are much more reliable.

1oldman2
SteveO33 said:
Engineering challenge as opposed to any kind of theoretical discovery.
It appears that the engineering aspect still has some bugs to be worked out.
http://spaceflight101.com/htv-6-end-of-mission/
"Tether deployment was expected around 24 hours after the spacecraft ’s departure from ISS, however, Mission Controllers in Tsukuba, Japan were unable to confirm a successful deployment due to at least one of four deployment mechanisms on the tether’s end mass not activating properly.

A charged tether of sufficient length when immersed in Earth’s magnetic field, could generate thrust to remove sizeable pieces of space debris from orbit. KITE was planned to measure the electromotive force generated by the tether in various modes to deliver hard data for future development work."

SteveO33
Thanks 1oldman2... yes, sorry to hear that the JAXA effort failed.. Well, they now take their place with a number of others who have not succeeded. I get it that "space is hard", but seeing what NASA and other nation's space agencies have accomplished, it's hard believe that the "tether" problem could not be solved after more than a decade of attempts. It speaks more to me that something is not well enough understood?

The graphic is quite interesting... I can see Fleming's Right Hand Rule at play and the direction of the current, but the position of the Electron Emitter is puzzling? And then the electrons entering at the top?

1oldman2
SteveO33 said:
And then the electrons entering at the top?
I sort of assumed that the tether has to have insulation along most of its length. The "electron emitter" will be producing positive charges at the same rate as electrons, once equilibrium is reached.

1oldman2
SteveO33 said:
It speaks more to me that something is not well enough understood?
I believe the science behind the orbital tether is pretty well understood, the main problem I see regarding tethers has been mechanical (deployment).

1oldman2 said:
science behind the orbital tether is pretty well understood
Two thoughts...
1. Science behind E=MC[2] was well understood, but took decades and lots of very, very smart physicists, mathematicians and engineers before application.
2. Where is there any science, physics or math about orbital mechanics of Tethered or Semi-articulated objects in space?

1oldman2
SteveO33 said:
Where is there any science, physics or math about orbital mechanics of Tethered or Semi-articulated objects in space?
I'll spend some time collecting info on that and we'll see what's out there so far.

SteveO33 said:
lots of very, very smart physicists, mathematicians and engineers
The mechanics of space tethers is hardly at that level of complexity. I suggest that the reason it hasn't been made to work properly may be that it has not actually received the level of funding needed for success. Once a significant number of satellites have been lost due to collisions, the money will suddenly become available, no doubt.
The ExoMars orbiter is actually using atmospheric drag to achieve its required orbit over an extended period. A tether could also achieve what's required and that sort of application may be another incentive to get tethers working right.
There is something very satisfying about the idea, I think.

1oldman2
1oldman2 said:
I'll spend some time collecting info on that and we'll see what's out there so far.
Here is a paper that describes the subject in regards to spin stabilization and maneuvering capabilities, (De-orbiting space junk is only one facet to orbital tethers, HTV-6's experiment was primarily a space junk clean-up focused test.) HTV-7 is roughly one year out and I have no idea if it includes another tether experiment). While going over the full text at this site, consider that it represents the state of the science over ten years ago. This is what I refer to when I say in post #25 that the Science is pretty well understood, most experiments mention "deployment issues" as the reason for failure, tension on the tether seems very critical for success.

I noticed that the tether system was considered for de-orbiting the Juno spacecraft early in the mission planning stages, however as mfb pointed out "Thrusters have been used for decades, so they are much more reliable." JPL hedged their bets and went with the tried and true booster option.
I'm interested to hear what in particular caught your attention as you searched tethers, there is a lot of hits on the web concerning them so I'm curious what your main interest in the technology is. Also sophiecentaur has an excellent point in #28, "Once a significant number of satellites have been lost due to collisions, the money will suddenly become available, no doubt." Profit/loss lines are a great motivator for targeted R&D.

http://www.dtic.mil/docs/citations/ADA444538 (Full text pdf is highly recommended)
Abstract : Electrodynamic tethers produce low thrust through interaction of the electric current in the tether with the Earth's magnetic field. The thrust is comparable with that of ion rockets and Hall thrusters, and they have the added advantage that they are propellantless, allowing them to produce an order of magnitude greater velocity changes than ion rockets. However, the long conductors of such electrodynamic thrusters typically exhibit unstable behaviors with higher currents. Instability affects both libration and bending modes of tether motion and significantly limits the performance characteristics of electrodynamic tether thrusters. Previous concepts for electrodynamic tethers have proposed stabilizing them by hanging vertically under the gravity gradient, but this passive gravity-gradient stabilization severely limits the current in the conductor, and therefore limits the thrust. Two methods have been developed to stabilize electrodynamic tethers and improve their performance. First, the system spins with an average spin rate significantly higher than the orbital rate, increasing tether tension for a more robust and controllable tether system, and providing a better orientation of the tether with respect to the magnetic field for orbital maneuvering. Second, electric current variation is used to control both the tether spin parameters and the tether bending modes. It is shown that a controlled, spinning electrodynamic tether can consistently deliver a much higher thrust compared with the traditional hanging tether configuration. Minimum-time orbit transfers with spinning tethers can be described approximately by a set of relatively simple ordinary differential equations using Pontryagin's Principle. These techniques were developed to control the dynamics of the Spinning Electrodynamic Tether (SET) system. This uses a conductor two to ten kilometers long as an electrodynamic thruster for a low-thrust orbit transfer vehicle.

1oldman2 said:
I'm interested to hear what in particular caught your attention as you searched tethers
Good question 1oldman2, and thank you for digging up the Abstract. To answer your question, it is the same thing that showed up in the Abstract... OLD AGE - it's over 10 years old. Where is anything new - there isn't. And no offense to the Abstract writers, it appears that most are all still employed at STAR TECHNOLOGY AND RESEARCH INC MOUNT PLEASANT SC, but that paper and even the items on their website today are more a cross between science and science fiction. Sure space tugs running around in low orbit, grabbing junk with big nets and dragging it into lower orbits to burn up sounds cool. But that's not about to be real. So, it has been 10-15 years, since anything serious has been written, and during that time, nothing has been successfully engineered, tested or achieved. That's a problem. I would suggest that we don't have all the science, physics and engineering right, yet. Doesn't anyone want to work on it and publish the first serious paper in 10-15 years?

First up, this backs Sophiecentaurs point about the economics driven aspect regarding deorbiting spacecraft with tethers. As the Kessler Syndrome evolves you will see an increased interest in the removal of debris (particularly propellant free methods such as Tethers) the more commercialized space becomes the more expenses and profit come into play.
http://spacenews.com/nasas-interest-in-removal-of-orbital-debris-limited-to-tech-demos/
"NASA adopted a policy in June 2014 to support development of orbital debris removal technology but not of operational systems. Specifically, the space agency backs projects with Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) 1 through 4, which means NASA’s support for projects ends once components or prototypes work in a laboratory setting."

What I see from a chronological viewpoint concerning Tethers is that the science has been worked out for some time now, it's just waiting on the development and implementation.
(http://www.tethers.com/)

http://www.eucass-proceedings.eu/articles/eucass/abs/2013/01/eucass4p763/eucass4p763.html
http://www.eucass-proceedings.eu/articles/eucass/abs/2009/01/eucass1p495/eucass1p495.html
https://arxiv.org/abs/1404.7430
https://arxiv.org/abs/1403.2221
https://arxiv.org/abs/1401.5968
https://arxiv.org/abs/1603.05563
https://trs.jpl.nasa.gov/bitstream/handle/2014/13405/01-2311.pdf?...1
https://trs.jpl.nasa.gov/bitstream/handle/2014/10112/02-2046.pdf?...
www.nasa.gov/centers/marshall/pdf/100415main_momentum.pdf
www.nasa.gov/centers/marshall/pdf/115871main_MXER_TS.pdf
https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/strg/mueterthies.html

SteveO33 said:
nothing has been successfully engineered, tested or achieved
Just wait for the first junk collision with a brand new satellite or a space station. It will suddenly become high priority. Same as with near miss asteroids.

1oldman2
mfb said:
The French lost a military satellite after 1 year.
Iridium lost an operational satellite.

Some more satellite losses could have been from space debris, but it is hard to find the cause of failure if the spacecraft just stops sending data.
It would not be difficult to make all satellites transmit an alarm signal to warn of an impact and the resulting spin. I believe there's already an omni antenna on most satellites to help regain control under some emergencies.
The problems experienced with the old Olympus DBS satellite were put down to a possible impact with one PV panel. It lost a lot of power and started spinning. Control was regained but the lifetime was badly compromised due to the need to waste fuel keeping its attitude correct. There will be loads of other such stories.

Why not have satellites deploy a massive 'braking chute' to slow them down at the end of life? I mean massive, of course, but it would only need to be gossamer thin and produce fractions of a Newton of braking force. Size would scale with satellite size to some extent - the advantage would be with the smaller satellites, as with falling insects and elephants.

If space debris hits a solar cell, you might have a chance to understand what happened. If it hits some critical component of the satellite (damaging the main computer, the antenna mount, or ruining the integrity of the whole structure), there is nothing you can do.

A braking sail is a complex and massive system, it would make collisions with space debris more likely (potentially breaking this up into smaller pieces and/or producing more pieces from the sail), and it is unclear if that would be better than lowering perigee with thrusters.

Replies
11
Views
3K
Replies
4
Views
2K
Replies
10
Views
3K
Replies
6
Views
830
Replies
17
Views
2K
Replies
9
Views
7K
Replies
17
Views
2K
Replies
7
Views
2K
Replies
3
Views
1K
Replies
46
Views
1K