Engineers develop new, better method for cleaning up orbiting space junk using magnets

More than 27,000 pieces of space debris larger than a softball are currently orbiting the Earth, according to NASA. They are traveling at speeds of up to 17,500 miles per hour, which is fast enough for a small chunk to strike a satellite or spacecraft like an intergalactic cannonball and cause significant damage.

As a result, if space agencies want to launch additional rockets and satellites into orbit, clearing up the debris will be a critical responsibility.

In collaboration with a team of researchers, Jake J. Abbott, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Utah, has identified a mechanism to manage trash in orbit via the use of rotating magnets.

Robots may one day be able to gently manipulate junk into a decaying orbit or farther out into space without ever touching it, or they may be able to fix faulty things in order to prolong their useful lives using this technology.

Detailed results of their investigation are published in the scientific journal Nature this month in the piece “Dexterous magnetic manipulation of conductive non-magnetic objects.” Lan Pham, Griffin Tabor, and Ashkan Pourkand are among the co-authors, as are former doctoral student Jacob L. B. Aman and University of Utah School of Computing assistant professor Tucker Hermans. An electronic version of the paper is available for viewing here.

The idea is to use rotating magnets to move metallic, non-magnetized objects around in space. “It’s like when you swirl your cup of coffee and it goes around and around,” explains Abbott, when the metallic debris is exposed to a changing magnetic field. When electrons circulate inside the metal, they form circular loops.

The method transforms the piece of trash into what is effectively an electromagnet that generates torque and force, allowing you to direct the path of the debris without having to physically hold the piece of debris yourself.

Even though the concept of manipulating objects in space with magnetic currents is not new, Abbott and his team have discovered that using multiple magnetic-field sources in a coordinated fashion allows them to move the objects in six directions, including rotating them, without causing them to deform. There was a time when it was only possible to move them in a single degree of movement, such as by simply moving them around.

In order to handle the object, “we wanted to do more than simply push it; we wanted to manipulate it as you would on Earth,” adds the author. There has never been a previous instance of this kind of dexterous manipulation.

This new understanding might allow scientists to, for example, prevent a broken satellite from rapidly rotating in order to repair it, which would have been impossible before.

In order to manage this “crazy contraption floating in space,” Abbott explains that it must first be placed in a location where it can be controlled by a robotic arm. “However, if it’s spinning out of control, you run the risk of breaking the robot arm, which would merely generate additional debris.”

This technique also enables scientists to manage items that are very delicate. Instead of damaging an item because a robot arm’s claw exerts force to a specific region of it, these magnets would provide a softer force to the whole thing, ensuring that no one piece is injured.

A copper ball on a plastic raft in a tank of water was moved by a succession of magnets to put their theory to the test (the best way to simulate slow-moving objects in microgravity). The magnets not only moved the sphere in a square pattern, but they also rotated the ball.

Using a spinning magnet on a robotic arm, a stationary magnet that generates spinning magnetic fields, or a spinning super-conductive electromagnet, such as those used in MRI scanners, according to Abbott, this newly found method might be exploited.

Abbott thinks that the technique of manipulating non-magnetic metallic materials using magnets might be used to a variety of other purposes than space debris cleanup.

“I’m beginning to be more open-minded about the possibilities,” he adds. “We’ve developed a novel method of applying force to an item for accurate alignment without having to physically touch it.”

However, for the time being, this concept may be quickly implemented to assist in the solution of the issue of space trash circling the Earth.

“In the same way that air traffic controllers watch planes, NASA is keeping track of thousands of pieces of space debris. You must be aware of their whereabouts since you may unintentionally collide with them “Abbott has said. “The United States government, as well as the governments of the rest of the globe, are aware of the situation since there is an increasing amount of this material collecting with each passing day.”

Original Research Article Here

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