The space around our planet is increasingly filling with junk, from broken satellites to discarded rocket stages. This debris threatens space exploration and research, from the International Space Station to the Hubble Space Telescope, and we still don’t have a good plan for how to get rid of it.
One of the reasons space debris is so difficult to dispose of is that it often moves extremely fast, at speeds of up to 27,500 miles per hour, and it is often made up of oddly shaped pieces that are not easy to grasp. Some suggested solutions include using nets or harpoons to catch the larger pieces of debris, but researchers at the University of Utah have devised a different approach that uses magnets.
“You have to take this crazy object floating in space and bring it into a position where it can be manipulated by a robotic arm,” explained lead author Jake J. Abbott in a opinion. “But if it got out of hand, you could break the robot arm in the process, which would only create more rubble.”
By using rotating magnets, robots could push debris into orbit where it burns or goes into space without actually touching it, which would be safer and faster than trying to grab individual parts.
However, such a method would have to work with dirt of all kinds, including metallic but non-magnetic parts. The team found a way to move non-magnetic debris by applying a changing magnetic field that swirls the electrons in the metal, essentially turning it into an electromagnet.
People had already thought of this approach, but the team was able to show that they could move debris in six degrees of motion, including rotation. This means that this method can have more precise control over debris instead of just pushing it in one direction.
“We wanted to manipulate, not just push, but actually manipulate the thing like you do on Earth,” Abbott said. “This form of skillful manipulation has never existed before.”
In the future, this approach could be used by space cleaning robots to clean up fragile or difficult-to-handle debris. This topic will only become more important as more and more junk floats in space around our planet.
“NASA tracks thousands of space debris the same way air traffic controllers track planes. You need to know where they are because you could accidentally bump into them, ”Abbott said. “The US government and the world’s governments know about this problem because more of this stuff is building up every day.”
The research is published in the journal nature.
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