Mechanical limitations of motorised tethers for payload orbital transfer

Christopher Murray, Matthew Cartmell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In recent decades much research has focused on the use of space tether systems for payload orbital transfers. Orbit raising through the exchange of momentum using hanging tether systems in addition to enhanced momentum exchange resulting from motorised torque-driven systems have both been considered. In this paper the focus is on the performance of symmetrically laden motorised momentum exchange tethers with the aim of conducting orbital transfers. These consist of two propulsion tethers symmetrically attached to a motor shaft with payloads, to be later transferred, attached to their free ends. Rotation is achieved through reaction against two further tethers and masses attached to the motor stator with an estimated mass of this system, minus the propulsion tethers and payloads, of 1.5 tonnes. By deriving the maximum tension acting on a system orbiting an oblate Earth expressions are obtained for the maximum rotational velocity that the tether systems are capable of withstanding, based upon the material properties of the tethers themselves. Having obtained these expressions the performance of both hanging and motorised tether systems for conducting orbital transfers is analysed in terms of the gain in energy when the orbital geometry and tether length are varied. From this analysis the material-specific tether length which gives the greatest gain in rotational kinetic energy to the payloads is established for a motorised system. Finally, by utilising this material-specific length, the minimum semi-major axis which is capable of performing lunar transfers and Earth escape trajectories is obtained.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)57-68
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Space Technology and Science
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2012


  • space tether
  • orbital transfer
  • momentum exchange


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