Science

Engineers develop better method for cleaning up orbiting debris in space

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 orbiting debris.

More frequent space exploration and advancement in telecommunication technology have arisen the problem of space debris, from decommissioned satellites. This has become a threat for space travel, as a small chunk of the dimension similar to a rice grain can destroy circuit boards and shred solar arrays, which can result in the loss of an aimed mission.

The new method is described in a paper in the journal Nature this month. It suggests that magnetic manipulation of ferromagnetic objects is up to the required strength, with a range of degrees of freedom, depending on the object’s geometry.

Engineers have predicted various results of such manipulation by using multiple rotating magnetic dipole fields. They have used dimensional analysis, with simulations and experimental verifications to characterize the forces and torques generated on different geometrical bodies.

“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,” Prof. Abbott said in a statement. “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.” He added, “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 cunning the full potential of this technique with its implication, 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.”

ARTICLE: PATEL CHAITANYA

MANAGING EDITOR: CARSON CHOATE

PHOTO CREDITS: THE VERGE

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