top of page

Spinning in Space: Exploring Reaction Wheel Configurations and the Math Behind Them

Updated: Jun 10, 2023


Reaction wheels are one of the many actuators used in the satellites which provides orientation control using angular momentum. Let's dig deeper into reaction wheels and have some fun with the math! These nifty devices are like spinning disks that help satellites keep their cool moves in space without using fuel-guzzling thrusters. How do they do it? Well, it's all about physics and conservation of angular momentum. Buckle up as we explore reaction wheel configurations, crunch some numbers, and groove with satellite orientation control.

Reaction Wheel
A Typical Reaction Wheel

Alright, let's start with the basics. A reaction wheel is basically a spinning disk. When the wheel spins up or slows down, the satellite reacts in the opposite direction, thanks to Newton's third law. You know, for every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction. By cleverly controlling the speed and direction of multiple reaction wheels, operators can make the satellite do fancy moves along three axes: roll, pitch, and yaw.

Now, let's talk configurations. While having three reaction wheels, each controlling rotation around a different axis, would technically do the trick, satellites often carry more than that for backup and better control. So, we've got different flavors like Inline, Pyramid (Tetrahedral), and Orthogonal configurations.

1. Inline Configuration:

Picture all the wheels aligned along a single axis. It's like a dance solo. This setup isn't commonly used because it lacks control over different axes. But in simpler satellites where three-axis control isn't necessary, you might spot it.

Tetrahedral Configuration

2. Pyramid (Tetrahedral) Configuration:

Now, imagine a pyramid-shaped pattern with four wheels. Each wheel pulls off some cool moves on all three axes. This setup gives you full control and redundancy. If one wheel gets tired, the remaining three can still keep the groove going.

3. Orthogonal Configuration:

In this setup, three or more wheels are mounted perpendicular to each other. Each wheel becomes the star of its own axis. With three wheels, you've got full control, but no backup dancer. So, to be safe, a fourth wheel is often added for some extra backup moves.

Alright, now let's hit the dance floor of equations for a moment. Brace yourself—it's about to get a bit math-y, but we'll keep it casual.

The reaction wheels generate torque to make the satellite move. The torque τ can be calculated using the formula:

τ = I * α

Here, I is the moment of inertia of the wheel, and α is the angular acceleration. You can think of α as the change in angular speed ω (omega) over the change in time t:

α = Δω / Δt

Plug this into the torque equation, and we've got:

τ = I * Δω / Δt

This equation lets operators calculate the change in wheel speed needed to generate the desired torque and, in turn, achieve the desired change in satellite orientation.

Let's break it down with an example.

Say we've got a satellite with a reaction wheel of moment of inertia I = 0.1 kgm². Our operators want to generate a torque of 0.01 Nm to make some sweet moves. We can calculate the necessary change in wheel speed like this:

Δω = τ * Δt / I

Assuming we want to make the adjustment over a period of 10 seconds (Δt = 10 s), let's crunch the numbers:

Δω = 0.01 Nm * 10 s / 0.1 kgm² = 1 rad/s

So, the wheel needs to change its speed by 1 radian per second over 10 seconds to get the desired torque and make the satellite bust some moves.

Okay, let's wrap it up now. Reaction wheels are the ultimate dance partners for satellites, helping them maintain their orientation and perform their cosmic tasks. The configurations they adopt, whether it's the smooth inline, the groovy pyramid, or the funky orthogonal, are all about maximizing control and having a backup plan in case a wheel needs a break.

But hey, the choice of configuration isn't just about redundancy. It also affects the satellite's control system. In an orthogonal setup with three wheels, each wheel takes charge of one axis—simple and straightforward. However, in a tetrahedral configuration, things get a bit more complex. The rotation of each wheel affects all three axes to some degree. It's like a coordinated dance routine that requires more intricate control algorithms to keep the wheels and the satellite in sync.

Now, let's get back to the math and equations, but don't worry, we'll keep it light and breezy.

In an inline configuration, where all the wheels are aligned, let's take a two-wheel setup. Each wheel needs to change its speed like this:

Δω = τ * Δt / I

In our example, with a torque of 0.01 Nm over 10 seconds and a moment of inertia of 0.1 kgm², the calculation goes like this:

Δω = 0.01 Nm * 10 s / 0.1 kgm² = 1 rad/s

The wheels have to spin in opposite directions to generate torque and keep the satellite steady.

Now, let's move on to the pyramid (tetrahedral) configuration. In this funky setup, each wheel's rotation affects all three axes. But for simplicity, let's say we only want torque around one axis, let's say the x-axis. We can keep the other wheels stationary, and the necessary change in wheel speed remains the same as in the inline configuration:

Δω = 1 rad/s

Finally, we've got the orthogonal configuration, where each wheel takes charge of one axis. If we want torque around the x-axis, we just spin up the wheel aligned with that axis:

Δω = 1 rad/s

The other wheels can take a break and stay stationary.

Phew, we made it through the math! Now, let's summarize everything with a quick comparison:

Certainly! Here's the information organized in a table format:


Number of Wheels


Complexity of Control

Change in Wheel Speed (for τ = 0.01 N*m, Δt = 10 s)


2 or more

No if less than 2 wheels


1 rad/s (per wheel, in opposite directions)

Pyramid or Tetrahedral




1 rad/s (for one wheel, others remain stationary)


3 or more for redundancy

Yes, if more than 3 wheels


1 rad/s (for one wheel, others remain stationary)

This table provides a concise summary of the various reaction wheel configurations, including the number of wheels, redundancy capabilities, complexity of control, and the change in wheel speed required to achieve the desired torque over a 10-second period.

Now, keep in mind that these examples are simplified. In reality, generating torque around multiple axes simultaneously would require spinning up multiple wheels in each configuration, with more calculations and coordination involved. Oh, and remember, in the real world, the wheels don't change speeds instantly—they need some ramp-up and ramp-down time.

Oh, wait! We almost forgot to mention momentum dumping. As the wheels keep spinning, they can build up momentum, which can make the satellite start spinning too. To prevent that, satellites occasionally use their thrusters to perform a "momentum dump." It's like a cool move that counteracts the momentum built up by the wheels, allowing them to slow down and stay in control.

Alright, let's wrap it all up. Reaction wheels are like the secret sauce that keeps satellites grooving and nailing their missions. They provide precise control over orientation, from pointing scientific instruments to aligning communication antennas and optimizing solar panel orientation. It's mind-boggling to think about the intricate dance these reaction wheels perform, hidden from view but essential for the smooth functioning of the satellites we rely on in our modern lives.

In the grand scheme of satellite design and operation, choosing the right reaction wheel configuration is a complex decision. It depends on various factors like mission requirements, the level of redundancy needed, the complexity of control algorithms, and even the trade-off between system mass and volume.

Let's take a closer look at a couple of real-life examples to understand the significance of configuration choices.

Hubble Space Telescope

The Hubble Space Telescope (HST), a star in the space observation domain, relies on six reaction wheels arranged in three orthogonal pairs to ensure redundancy. This configuration has proven wise because, over its long operational life, some of the reaction wheels have encountered failures and had to be replaced. Thanks to the redundancy provided by the orthogonal configuration, the HST could continue capturing breathtaking images and unlocking the secrets of the universe.

Kepler Space Telescope

On the other hand, the Kepler Space Telescope, famous for its exoplanet-hunting prowess, was equipped with four reaction wheels in a tetrahedral configuration. Unfortunately, when two of the wheels failed, the telescope couldn't maintain its precise pointing and carry out its primary mission. However, the mission didn't end there. Creative thinking and resourcefulness came into play, and scientists leveraged solar radiation pressure to stabilize the telescope and embark on the K2 mission, extending its scientific productivity.

To sum it all up, reaction wheels and their configuration play a crucial role in the design and operation of satellites. They enable precise control over orientation, which is vital for a wide range of tasks. Whether it's the elegant inline, the versatile pyramid, or the focused orthogonal, each configuration has its strengths and considerations. So, next time you gaze up at the night sky, appreciate the synchronized choreography of those spinning wheels up above, making space exploration and satellite operations possible.

Cite this article as:

Y. Kumar, “Exploring Reaction Wheels: Satellite Orientation Control, Configurations, and the Math Behind Them,” Space Navigators, May 14, 2023. [Online]. Available:


bottom of page