The astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) may soon be getting a couple new toys to play with: small, disc-shaped satellites. These satellites are equipped with a new propulsion system that the ISS astronauts will be putting through its paces. That propulsion system: electromagnets.
Much like we use arrays of land-based telescopes to construct single images, satellites are now being used in concert to provide similar combined data. The issue is that, when assembling an array of small satellites to work in unison, engineers need to get the little weightless objects into perfect alignment. The use of propellants in maneuvering these satellites can not only throw neighboring satellites out of position, but actually blind their instruments as well.
Enter the Resonant Inductive Near-field Generation System (or RINGS). Turning each satellite into an electromagnet, the RINGS system can easily align an array satellites without the use of propellants. If all goes well, scientists can then turn their focus on other systems (like cryogenic cooling, superconductive wiring and reaction wheels) that will come into play in the small, ring-shaped satellites. Then, at some point in the future, a magnetic ballet will take place in orbit in the interest of furthering our exploration of the heavens.