Is Star Trek a reality? Countdown to technology to clean up space debris by shooting a ‘tow ray’

US researchers are developing light beams using static electricity

Towing and disposal of large satellites weighing several tonnes

A prototype launch is expected within 5-10 years

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Parts of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) installed on the International Space Station (ISS) to study dark matter in the universe are floating in Earth’s orbit. It was separated during AMS repairs in 2019. Provided by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

news/2023/06/08/news-p.v1.20230608.4f1a997ad7474ebc90c20622d4426511_P1.webp" loading="lazy">Beams of static electricity from towing satellites act like invisible strings and attract space debris.  If you dump the space debris into deep space, the 'cleanup' mission is over.  Courtesy of University of Colorado Boulder

Conceptual diagram of an artificial satellite for towing

Beams of static electricity from towing satellites act like invisible strings and attract space debris. If you dump the space debris into deep space, the ‘cleanup’ mission is over. Courtesy of University of Colorado Boulder

A new technology is being developed that pulls space debris with so-called ‘pull beams’ which you can’t see with the naked eye but which act like a strong rope.

This technology has only been seen in science fiction (SF) movies, but recently, as the problem of space debris has become serious, it is attracting attention as a practical cleaning method that can be used in orbit around the Earth.

The American science journal Interesting Engineering reported on the 7th (local time) that researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder are developing technology to drag and throw abandoned satellites and other space debris to a safe place using a type of rope made of power electrical. .

Gravitational rays can be seen in science fiction films such as ‘Star Trek’. It is used to move a broken ally ship to a safe place in space. Of course, the present is an imaginary concept.

The researchers brought this imagination into reality. to solve the space debris problem. Space debris has recently increased to the point where there are concerns that it could become an obstacle to human advancement into space. There are currently 34,000 pieces of space debris orbiting the Earth, even if you count only 10 cm or more in diameter. This includes thousands of satellites that have reached the end of their life.

The source of the drag used by the research team to clear space debris is ‘static electricity’. The principle is that hair is rubbed against a balloon standing on top. The first thing a portable satellite that detects space debris does is shoot a beam of static electricity at it. The range is 15-27m.

This ray is positively charged, but when it hits space debris, it creates a negative charge at the same time. By creating charges of different properties in this way, the N and S poles of the magnet appear to attract each other. Its purpose is to ensure that the hauling satellite and the space debris are firmly attached.

After that, the hauling satellite drags the space debris away from the earth and discards it, and the ‘cleaning up’ task is over. Even heavy objects weighing several tons can be towed.

Until now, technology for a similar purpose invented by the global scientific community has usually been a method of capturing space debris by shooting a harpoon or net after a cleaning satellite approaches it. In order to use this method, the space debris and the cleaning satellite must be in direct physical contact.

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have devised a non-contact method using light beams to diversify the method of removing space debris. In particular, the beam has the advantage of being able to fire multiple times at space debris. It means versatile.

Current methods of disposing of space debris, such as harpooning, are usually disposable. The research team explained through official data from the University of Colorado Boulder “that it could be used to clear up to dozens of space debris.”

Furthermore, the possibility that this technology’s excellent ability to remove space debris will attract military attention in the future cannot be ruled out. It means that there is a possibility that it will be used to attract enemy reconnaissance satellites instead of space debris. Even now, the United States is well aware of the movements and capabilities of various space debris disposal satellites being developed by China.

There are still limits. With current propulsion technology, even if you move space debris for two to three months without stopping, the distance it moves in space is only 320 km. “With sufficient funding, we could be launching a prototype into space within the next 5 to 10 years,” said the researchers.


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