The apparatus was developed by Vedant, a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign specialized in aerospace engineering, in collaboration with NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab.
The main effect that motivated the research in this field is the constant vibration pattern that satellites present. For a significant proportion of spacecrafts, this is not a major issue and does not influence their performance, however, some of them are highly affected by the vibrations. For example, for satellites designed to take pictures of space and earth, shaking results in low-quality and blurry images.
The research team managed to eliminate the vibrations using active vibration control, a technique that utilizes opposite vibrations to cancel the initial noise. Those vibrations are applied to the satellite's solar panels by the developed device. Vedant noticed that during this procedure, an unexpected incident occurred. The system could manipulate the satellite's movement, rotating it in space.
Vedant described the moment when he first realized that the device can also move the satellite. He said that he mapped the oscillation movements in a keyboard so that each key applies vibrations in a different direction. After succeeding in the noise cancellation process, he realized that the space platform would rotate in a different direction and stop. At first, the thought there was some kind of error in the developed mathematical model, but in fact, he found a new manner of rotating a satellite.
In space, objects can move using their internal forces. Vedant explains the mechanism of the rotation applied by the new intention: “The solar panels are long and flexible. If you swing one down, it will rotate your spacecraft by a small amount of angle. When you contract it, that shouldn't change the angle at all, because that's just a contraction. But, I’m also changing the length of the solar panel—that changes the moment of inertia, which moves it back a slightly different amount. And if you do this repeatedly, you can then begin adding these angles. That’s what’s new about these multifunctional structures for attitude control,” he stated.
According to Vedant, the device cannot perform actual tasks in space yet. Therefore, his current aim is to focus on making it functional for a future space mission.
The University of Illinois has acquired a patent on the developed system.
Click the video below to watch a prototype of the device made from a 3D printer.