Scientists are developing a sci-fi-like tractor beam to clear up space junk

The "electrostatic tractor" concept could be used to move space junk without ever touching it.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of a beam traveling through space.
An artist's impression of a beam traveling through space.

DKosig / iStock 

A team of engineers from the University of Colorado Boulder is developing a machine inspired by the tractor beams seen in sci-fi movies, a press statement reveals.

Tractor beams are a staple of sci-fi, having appeared in Star Trek, Star Wars, and other major franchises. According to the team of US engineers, however, they may soon become a reality and could be used to pull space debris out of Earth's orbit.

Engineers develop new "virtual tether" system

The engineers are working on an early design concept that, they claim, would allow them to move a several-ton object into a different orbit. This could be used for various purposes, including moving defunct satellites to higher graveyard orbits or deorbiting them altogether.

The catch — and it's a pretty big one — is that their tractor beam technology can only move at a relative snail's pace of 200 miles for two or three months.

In the press statement, Hanspeter Schaub, chair of the aerospace engineering department at the University of Colorado Boulder, admitted that "it's similar to the tractor beam you see in 'Star Trek,' although not nearly as powerful."

Scientists are developing a sci-fi-like tractor beam to clear up space junk
An illustration of the electrostatic tractor concept.

In order to develop their concept, dubbed an "electrostatic tractor", the researchers are using a large vacuum chamber to simulate the conditions of space and prove that the technology can work.

The device could, in theory, fire a beam of electrons at space debris from roughly 50 to 90 feet away. This would induce a negative charge in the debris while producing a positive one in the vessel holding the device.

This would gradually attract the two, causing the space junk to move. Essentially, it works similarly to static from a balloon causing a person's hair to stand on end.

"With that attractive force, you can essentially tug away the debris without ever touching it," said Julian Hammerl, a CU Boulder aerospace engineer involved in the research. "It acts like what we call a virtual tether."

Tractor beam concept could clean Earth's orbit

Schaub highlighted the space debris problem by stating that the high geosynchronous orbit (GEO) around Earth "is like the Bel Air of space", and it is running out of real estate. GEO refers to an orbit allowing satellites to rotate at the same speed as Earth and remain fixed.

One problem is that space debris travels around Earth at incredibly high speeds, meaning it is difficult and dangerous to collect using spacecraft designed to come into contact with the debris.

"Touching things in space is very dangerous," said Kaylee Champion, one of the researchers involved in the CU Boulder project. "Objects are moving very fast and often unpredictably."

This makes the electrostatic tractor concept a very attractive concept amid the growing space debris problem. First, though, the scientists will likely have to find a way to make it work faster, especially as it will always be compared to its ultra-efficient sci-fi equivalent.

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