Space Age Gimbals

| Transport

High precision gimbals are used in various applications in space

Precision bearings provide stability for navigation equipment based on pioneering era gimbal technology now equally essential for space flight

A piece of technology, which first appeared in early Tudor times as an aid to navigation is used today in numerous high-technology control applications and as an essential component for successful space projects in both commercial and defence applications.

In their early form, Gimbals were used to prevent the unwanted movement of the early compasses on ships. Now, they have a multitude of applications especially in critical control applications, such as in space flight by enabling precise control and stabilisation of NASA spacecraft, rockets and satellite systems.

Typically, gimbals consist of two rings fixed together axially at 90º to each other and are designed to dampen any movement such as roll, pitch and yaw on a component that is susceptible to this type of movement. In space flight they enable precise control and stabilisation of objects such as an engine, sensor, or instrument, helping to maintain its orientation or change it, while keeping another part of the system stable.

Importance in space flight

In space there is no atmosphere to provide aerodynamic stability, so spacecraft and rockets rely on thrusters, engines and reaction control systems for propulsion and manoeuvrability. Gimbals allow these engines to be swivelled and pointed in different directions, enabling precise control over the spacecraft’s orientation and trajectory so are essential for achieving accurate course corrections, orbital adjustments and rendezvous manoeuvres.

Many space missions require precise pointing and stabilisation of on-board instruments and sensors and gimbals allow these components to be mounted on rotating platforms that are designed to counteract any unwanted motion or vibrations. This ensures optimum precision, enabling instruments to focus on their intended targets, without being affected by the spacecraft’s movement.

Gimbals are also used to steer rocket engines during thrusting, allowing for precise control of the spacecraft’s trajectory. By using gimbals to adjust the engines direction means spacecraft can make more efficient use of propellant, minimising fuel consumption and extending a mission’s duration.

Also, spacecraft often need to maintain consistent orientation for communication with ground control stations, or for observing celestial objects. Gimbals help to keep antennas and other optical instruments pointed in the right direction, which optimises signal strength helping to ensure consistent data transmission. They also enable telescopes and cameras to capture clear images of specific targets.

Finally, the orientation or attitude of a spacecraft is critical for achieving specific mission objectives, such as maintaining the proper orientation for solar panel exposure or managing heat dissipation. Gimbals provide the means to adjust and maintain the spacecraft’s attitude, allowing it to respond to changes in external conditions and maintain optimal operational conditions.

Carter Manufacturing and its partners are active in the supply of gimbals and the high precision bearings that are used in the most demanding and critical space flight applications. This is possible thanks to the support of our partners whose products we supply. These Carter partner, Silverthin designs and manufactures high-precision thin section bearings and NES (Napoleon Engineering Services) produces engineered bearing systems for the most critical environments in space research and exploration.

NES offers the key benefit of ‘Space Heritage’ a status that is crucial to being considered a supplier to the space industry sector. This is underlined by the fact that NES has supported both NASA missions in the USA and also projects initiated by the European ESA by supplying components for life-critical space applications.

All items supplied for space applications are able to withstand extreme vacuum environments, extreme temperatures and vibration levels meeting ABEC 1F,3F,5F or 7F precision levels.

Jonathan Newell
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