Space junk: U of U researchers want to clean up trash in outer space

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Professor Jake Abbott at the University of Utah (Courtesy of University of Utah)

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – As the world focuses on cleaning up the planet from pollution and debris, what about detritus floating in space?

According to NASA, there are currently over 27,000 pieces of trash floating around Earth — all larger than a typical softball size. Due to the earth’s pull, the debris is traveling at speeds of up to 17,500 mph which is fast enough to damage a satellite or spacecraft. The impact would be akin to an “intergalactic cannonball,” researchers say.

So what can we do to clean up outer space and perhaps prevent a cosmic collision? The University of Utah engineers have an answer to that – magnets!

Jake J. Abbott, University of Utah professor of mechanical engineering is leading a team of researchers that has discovered a way to manipulate orbiting debris using spinning magnets.

“We’ve discovered how to use rotating magnetic fields to dexterously manipulate objects made of metals that are typically considered non-magnetic,” says Abbott. “This has the potential to contribute a solution to the problem of space debris.”

Depiction of orbital space debris. (Courtesy of NASA)

The team is hoping this discovery could lead to the ability to control and manipulate space debris without actually touching it or even facilitate object repairs remotely from Earth. Most of the junk floating in space is made of aluminum which is considered a weaker magnet level than the typical ones we’re familiar with.

The U of U method involves surrounding a metallic object with multiple magnets and rotating them, creating torque and force which allows a level of control and manipulation.

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

This new discovery could allow scientists to stop a wilding spinning satellite for repairs which researchers say could not be possible without this method.

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

This method also allows scientists to manipulate objects that are especially fragile and could have use beyond the realm of outer space. Abbott says this newly discovered process could be used with a spinning magnet on a robotic arm, a stationary magnet that creates spinning magnetic fields, or a spinning superconductive electromagnet like those used in MRI scanners.

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

But for now, the potential to use this discovery for space debris is great news for the U of U team.

“NASA is tracking thousands of space debris the same way that air traffic controllers track aircraft, says Abbott. “You have to know where they are because you could accidentally crash into them,” Abbott says. “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.”

To check out the full study, click here.

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