Space Junk Management The key to the rockets and satellites of the future

An illustration showing some of the many NASA satellites in orbit around the Earth Credits: NASA
An illustration showing some of the many NASA satellites in orbit around the Earth Credits: NASA

Waste in the room poses a danger. When you consider that there are more than 27,000 pieces of space debris that are larger than the size of a softball currently orbiting the Earth, and that these objects are moving at speeds of up to 17,500 mph, which is fast enough for a small part to damage a satellite or spacecraft like an intergalactic cannonball. In contrast, the bullet from an ordinary hunting rifle moves at a speed of about 1,700 km / h. The damage from space debris can be massive to whatever it hits.

Cleaning up this space junk will be an important task if agencies are to launch more rockets and satellites into orbit. The University of Utah, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Jake J. Abbott, leads a team of researchers who have discovered a method of manipulating orbital debris with rotating magnets. With this technology, robots could one day gently maneuver the scrap to a decaying orbit or further out into space without actually touching it, or they could repair malfunctioning objects to extend their life.

The concept is to move metallic, non-magnetized objects in space with rotating magnets. When the metallic debris is exposed to a changing magnetic field, electrons in the metal circulate in circular loops, “like when you swirl your cup of coffee and it goes around and around,” Abbott says.

The process transforms the piece of waste into essentially an electromagnet that creates torque and force, which can allow you to control where the waste goes without physically grabbing it.

Although the idea of ​​using this kind of magnetic current to manipulate objects in space is not new, Abbott and his team have discovered that using multiple magnetic field sources in a coordinated way allows them to move objects in six-degree motion, including rotating them. Before, one only knew how to move them in one degree of movement, like just pushing them.

“What we wanted to do was manipulate the thing, not just push it, but actually manipulate it the way you do on Earth,” he says. “That kind of deft manipulation has never been done before.”

With this new knowledge, scientists could, for example, stop a damaged satellite from spinning game to repair it, something that would not have been possible before.

“You have to take this crazy object floating in space and you have to get it in a position where it can be manipulated by a robot arm,” Abbott says. “But if it turns out of control, you can crack the robot arm by doing so, which would just create more dirt.”

This method also allows researchers to manipulate objects that are particularly fragile. While a robotic arm can damage an object because its claw exerts a force on a part of it, these magnets would apply a milder force to the entire object so that no section is damaged.

To test their research, the team used a series of magnets to move a copper ball on a plastic raft in a tank of water (the best way to simulate slow-moving objects in microgravity). The magnets not only moved the ball in a square, but they also rotated the ball.

Abbott says this newly discovered process could be used with a rotating magnet on a robotic arm, a stationary magnet that creates rotating magnetic fields, or a rotating superconducting electromagnet like those used in MRI scanners.

Abbott believes that this principle of manipulating non-magnetic metallic objects with magnets can also have applications in addition to clearing space debris.

“I’m starting to open my mind to what potential applications there are,” Abbott says. “We have a new way of applying force to an object for precise alignment without touching it.”

But so far, this idea could immediately be used to help solve the problem of space debris orbiting the Earth.

“NASA tracks thousands of space debris in the same way that air traffic controllers track aircraft. You need to know where they are because you may accidentally bump into them,” Abbott said. because more and more of this is accumulating with each passing day. “

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