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Earth’s space debris crisis could be solved using ‘never been done’ magnet technology

Magnets on the end of a robot arm could help move debris or fix satellites without ever being touched

Adam Smith
Monday 01 November 2021 11:09 GMT
Space junk is becoming an increasing problem as more and more objects are sent into low-Earth orbit
Space junk is becoming an increasing problem as more and more objects are sent into low-Earth orbit (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Scientists have found a way to use spinning magnets to move space debris, possibly offering a way to clear up the detritus around our planet or remotely repair malfunctioning craft.

There are currently over 27,000 pieces of space debris larger than a baseball orbiting Earth, reaching speeds of up to 17,500 mph, but legal loopholes mean governments are loath to clear it up.

Researchers at the University of Utah now think that they can turn debris into what is essentially a large electromagnet by moving the magnets around them. When this happens, electrons move within the non-magnetised metal in a loop “like when you swirl your cup of coffee and it goes around and around,” mechanical engineering professor Jake J. Abbott explained.

This creates torque and that would allow scientists to move the debris without physically grabbing it.

This idea is not new, but the new development from Utah scientists allows even greater freedom of movement. Previously, the debris could only move in one direction, but using multiple magnetic-field sources in a specific manner could move it in six plains of motion.

“What we wanted to do was to manipulate the thing, not just shove it but actually manipulate it like you do on Earth,” Abbott said. “That form of dexterous manipulation has never been done before.”

This could help stop a damaged satellite from spinning after it had been hit by a chunk of discarded craft, as well as protecting fragile objects that could be further damaged by physical force.

“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,” Abbott said. “But if it’s spinning out of control, you could break the robot arm doing that, which would just create more debris.”

In practise, the spinning magnets could be attached to a robotic arm, a stationary magnet that creates spinning magnetic fields, or a spinning electromagnet like those in MRI machines.

The threat space debris causes to the planet recently caused a group of former astronauts, international space agencies, Nobel Laureates, and government officials across the world have signed an open letter to stop anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) testing.

“If just one piece of debris from such a test collides with a satellite and causes a major fragmentation event, this could lead to additional events affecting all States, which could include further fragmentations, satellite failures, or service disruptions”, the letter stated.

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