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How Does the International Space Station Maintain Its Orientation?

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How does the ISS keep its orientation?

Robert Frost:

Nominally, attitude control is provided by four control moment gyroscopes (CMGs). Each CMG contains a wheel that is 220 pounds (100 kg). That wheel spins at 6600 rpm, resulting in an angular momentum of 3500 ft-lb-s (4742.5 N-m-s). The basic idea is that if a torque induces a rotation on the ISS, those wheels can rotate about their gimbals to change the angular momentum of the ISS, creating a counter torque. Using CMGs is much more subtle than using thrusters, so microgravity experiments are not impacted. CMGs do have limits, though, so thrusters can assist, if needed. That assistance is needed whenever the torques are large.

To minimize thruster assists, during quiescent operations, we do a type of attitude control called momentum management (MM). This is done by maneuvering the ISS to a torque equilibrium attitude (TEA) that was analyzed by the ground a year or more in advance. This TEA is an attitude that, with meanderings of up to 15 degrees, will result in the gravity torques and atmospheric torques adding up, over an orbit, to close to zero. The CMGs then take up the slack to make that zero.

We often can't be in a TEA during critical operations. For those we need to be in an attitude hold (AH). An example of this is a docking or berthing. Attitude holds are challenging because they require a lot more work, often too much for the CMGs to handle alone, and yet firing thrusters during critical operations can be problematic.

For these operations we design a matrix for the flight rules to ensure safety. For example, we do not allow thrusters to fire whenever the end of the robotic arm is within 2 feet (0.6 m) of the vehicle. The last thing we need is for a thruster firing to shake the arm and cause it to hit the side of a module, puncturing the module. If the timeline indicates the arm will be that close, ADCO (the attitude control flight controller) will inhibit thruster assist.

Dockings and berthings can produce sudden changes in momentum. During these activities we inhibit the entire attitude control system to ensure we do not introduce forces that could damage a docking or berthing mechanism. You might notice, on NASA TV, that the vehicle can get considerably out of attitude at these times.

The attitude control computer (GNC MDM) contains the software that does all of the necessary calculations for attitude control. It takes in the actual attitude and subtracts the commanded attitude to determine the error it needs to correct. It knows the rates of the ISS. That is very sensitive, so sensitive that we can tell when the crew wake up by watching the behavior of the CMGs as the crew start to move around the vehicle. The software also needs a set of user provided parameters such as the vehicle mass properties and inertia tensors. These are located in data slots called CCDBs (controller configuration databases). We have a stockpile of these CCDBs for different vehicle configurations. For example, if a Progress cargo vehicle arrives and docks to the Russian Segment, we will have a CCDB slot designed for that configuration. When it leaves, we will swap to another one.

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Big Questions
Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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