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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.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Why You Should Never Take Your Shoes Off On an Airplane
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What should be worn during takeoff?

Tony Luna:

If you are a frequent flyer, you may often notice that some passengers like to kick off their shoes the moment they've settled down into their seats.

As an ex-flight attendant, I'm here to tell you that it is a dangerous thing to do. Why?

Besides stinking up the whole cabin, footwear is essential during an airplane emergency, even though it is not part of the flight safety information.

During an emergency, all sorts of debris and unpleasant ground surfaces will block your way toward the exit, as well as outside the aircraft. If your feet aren't properly covered, you'll have a hard time making your way to safety.

Imagine destroying your bare feet as you run down the aisle covered with broken glass, fires, and metal shards. Kind of like John McClane in Die Hard, but worse. Ouch!

Bruce Willis stars in 'Die Hard' (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

A mere couple of seconds delay during an emergency evacuation can be a matter of life and death, especially in an enclosed environment. Not to mention the entire aircraft will likely be engulfed in panic and chaos.

So, the next time you go on a plane trip, please keep your shoes on during takeoff, even if it is uncomfortable.

You can slip on a pair of bathroom slippers if you really need to let your toes breathe. They're pretty useless in a real emergency evacuation, but at least they're better than going barefoot.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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