An experiment to tap the power
of outer cosmos fails as the link
ASTRONAUTS on February 26 were hoping to perform the ultimate Indian rope
trick - by dangling a ball-shaped satellite from a space shuttle as it swept
above the earth. But the experiment
failed; the cable linking the space shuttle
to the satellite broke.
The experiment, which was
conducted by astronauts abroad space
shuttle Columbia, would have had
radical implications for the future of
space exploration if it had succeeded.
The abortive experiment was to see
that whether a satellite can tap into
the power of the cosmos, and
whether one can harvest electricity
from ionised gases.
The tethered satellite, constructed
by Italian space engineers, was hoisted
out of Columbia's cargo bay by the
craft's robot arm which was operated by
Swiss astronaut Claude Nicollier. It was
reeled out into space on a 19.3 kin-long
As the line swept through Earth's
magnetic field, scientists measured the
electricity generated along its length.
Some researchers believe that such
devices could act as alternatives to solar
panels for spacecraft.
Researchers also want to find out if
cables could be used to transfer energy
between a shuttle and the proposed
Alpha space station, providing the
power io keep the latter in high orbit.
Studies were also supposed to have been
carried out on the February 26 experiment, to find out if two spaceships
linked by a tether and spinning around a
common centre of gravity, could generate centrifugal forces to create artificial
gravity for astronauts.
I Researchers say it may be possible to
use electricity generated on the tether
holding the satellite as a new power
source for spacecrafts. The technique
could also be used to create artificial
gravity for astronauts.
The ball-shaped aluminium satellite, five feet in diametre, away into
the ionosphere from Columbia. As
the tether sliced through the Earth's
magnetic field at 27,423 kmph, it
generated an electrical potential of
However, using wires or ropes to
link spacecrafts is fraught with danger in
airless, zero-gravity conditions.
Astronauts had to abandon their first
attempt to fly the tethered satellite two
years ago, when the cable jammed.
The abortive February 26 attempt
was the second one. Paul Gough of
Sussex University (one of the scientists
who helped develop the tether) told the
press that his team had planned to sue
the copper-cored tether to measure how
plasma - ionised gases - interacts
with electric currents in space, a process
that produces effects such as the aurora
borealis or the northern lights.
Plasma is the universe's dominant
form of matter. It constitutes 99.9 per
cent of what the cosmos is made of, and
yet we know relatively little about it.
This experiment should have helped put
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