Tether propulsion

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Tether propulsion systems are proposals to use long, very strong cables (known as tethers) to change the velocity of spacecraft and payloads.[1] The tethers may be used to initiate launch, complete launch, or alter the orbit of a spacecraft. Spaceflight using this form of spacecraft propulsion may be significantly less expensive than spaceflight using rocket engines.

Tethers are kept straight by either rotating end for end, with very high tips speeds (several km/s), or by the difference in the strength of gravity over their length (tidal stabilisation). Tethers require strong, light materials. Some current tether designs use crystalline plastics such as ultra high molecular weight polyethylene, aramid or carbon fiber. A possible future material would be carbon nanotubes, which have an estimated tensile strength between 140 and 177 GPa (20.3-25.6 million psi), and a proven tensile strength in the range 50-60 GPa.

A momentum exchange tether is a rotating tether that would grab a spacecraft and then release it at later time. Doing this can transfer momentum and energy from the tether to and from the spacecraft with very little loss; this can be used for orbital manoeuvring. A rotating momentum exchange tether is known as a bolo.[2]

Another type of tether is an electrodynamic tether, this is a conductive tether that carries a current that can generate thrust or drag from a planetary magnetic field, in much the same way as an electric motor.


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