Magazine article Science News

Little Levers for Satellites: Cilia May Precisely Dock Tiny Spacecraft. (Science News This Week)

Magazine article Science News

Little Levers for Satellites: Cilia May Precisely Dock Tiny Spacecraft. (Science News This Week)

Article excerpt

In an era of satellite design now in its infancy, large and costly spacecraft are giving way to fleets of cheaper, miniaturized satellites. Some may be as small as a deck of cards. One challenge of this approach is designing means to subtly position the spacecraft during their frequent docking maneuvers with a mother ship to refuel or transfer data.

John W. Suh of Xerox Palo Alto (Calif.) Research Center and his colleagues may have come up with a solution. They've demonstrated that artificial whiskers, or cilia, which could be mounted on a mother satellite, are strong and precise enough to move a companion vehicle with great finesse.

Suh says the group's arrays of microscopic cilia have positioned a satellite-like object to within a few micrometers of a target spot. That's good news for satellite makers, given that "space cilia are lightweight and relatively low cost," says team member Karl F. Bohringer of the University of Washington in Seattle. The scientists reported their work in the most recent (December 2001) issue of Smart Materials and Structures.

Originally inspired by wee navigational hairs on various microorganisms, Bohringer, Suh, Gregory T. A. Kovacs of Stanford University, and their students have been developing cilia since the early 1990s (SN: 7/26/97, p. 62). Unlike biological cilia, the team's artificial ones are made by coating silicon wafers with a layer of tungsten sandwiched between pairs of silicon-nitride and plastic films. …

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