Engineers Find New Way to Clean Up Space Junk in Orbit

Engineers have devised a new technique to clear space debris using magnets
John Loeffler

As humans venture into space more frequently, the problem of high-speed space debris from decommissioned satellites and past space launches is becoming more and more of a threat to space travel, but engineers think they have a novel idea on how to tidy things up in orbit.

The mechanical engineers, led by University of Utah professor Jake J. Abbott, have devised a new plan that utilizes spinning magnets to manipulate orbital debris, making it easier to manage and collect.

The new method is described in a paper in the journal Nature this month.

The idea relies on subjecting debris to a changing magnetic field, which circulates electrons in the metal debris in charged loops "like when you swirl your cup of coffee and it goes around and around," Abbott said in a statement.

This would allow you to move the debris where you wanted it to go without actually having to touch it. "What we wanted to do was to manipulate the thing, not just shove it but actually manipulate it like you do on Earth," Abbott said. "That form of dexterous manipulation has never been done before."

While this is important for clearing out space junk that can't be repaired, this method could also be used to stop a damaged satellite from spinning, which could actually allow astronauts and engineers to repair the satellite while it is still in orbit, something not thought to be possible until now.

"You have to take this crazy object floating in space, and you have to get it into a position where it can be manipulated by a robot arm," Abbott said. "But if it's spinning out of control, you could break the robot arm doing that, which would just create more debris."

The engineering team is just coming to grips with the implications of their technique, and they aren't even sure yet that they fully understand the implications of it.

"I'm starting to open my mind to what potential applications there are," Abbott said. "We have a new way to apply a force to an object for precise alignment without touching it."

"NASA is tracking thousands of space debris the same way that air traffic controllers track aircraft. You have to know where they are because you could accidentally crash into them," Abbott added. "The U.S. government and the governments of the world know of this problem because there is more and more of this stuff accumulating with each passing day."

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