Once operational, their device could "essentially tug away the debris without ever touching it."
Straight out of Star Trek
A team of engineers is working on a real life "tractor beam," a staple device of spacefaring sci-fi that can push and pull objects at a distance without making contact.
Tantalizingly, their early design concepts seem to actually work, with the researchers calculating that they could move a several-ton object at an — admittedly very slow — pace of around 200 miles over two to three months.
"We're creating an attractive or repulsive electrostatic force," said Hanspeter Schaub, chair of the aerospace engineering department at University of Colorado Boulder, in a press release. "It's similar to the tractor beam you see in 'Star Trek,' although not nearly as powerful."
Although it's still a long way from being a space-worthy prototype, a real life tractor beam could eventually be an invaluable tool to help clean up the space junk that pollutes the Earth's increasingly crowded orbits — not to mention one of those rare moments when actual tech seems to be making inroads toward golden-era sci-fi.
The researchers are experimenting with their designs by using a large, specialized vacuum chamber that simulates the conditions of space.
Their favored concept, a so-called "electrostatic tractor," uses more or less the same principles that cause a balloon to stick to your hair after rubbing it on your head.
In theory, at a distance of some 50 to 90 feet away, a spaceship could use the device to shoot a beam of electrons at a hunk of space junk, inducing a negative charge in the debris while producing a positive one in the servicing vessel, gradually attracting them together.
"With that attractive force, you can essentially tug away the debris without ever touching it," said Julian Hammerl, a CU Boulder aerospace engineer involved in the research. "It acts like what we call a virtual tether."
Clearing Real Estate
The space debris problem shouldn't be underestimated. According to Schaub, geosynchronous orbit (GEO), a highly coveted area in space where satellites can remain in a fixed position relative to Earth, is already running out of real estate.
"GEO is like the Bel Air of space," Schaub described.
In addition, NASA has recently reaffirmed the seriousness of the space junk issue in a March report, which concluded that lightly nudging debris, rather than removing them from orbit altogether, might be the most practical solution.
Easier said than done, and according to the researchers, coming into physical contact with debris is a potential hazard, which makes using a hands-off tractor beam an all the more — shall we say — attractive option.
"Touching things in space is very dangerous," explained Kaylee Champion, one of the researchers involved in the CU Boulder project. "Objects are moving very fast and often unpredictably."
Schaub added that tractor beams could be a significantly cheaper cleanup tool, too, as a craft equipped with one could move up to "dozens of objects during its lifetime."
"That brings your cost way down," he added. "No one wants to spend a billion dollars to move trash."
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