Magnetic robotic arms to prevent debris rings from forming around Earth?

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It is estimated that there are currently more than 170 million objects larger than one millimeter orbiting the Earth. The amount of this debris is only increasing as private companies and space agencies venture into Earth orbit, further threatening the safety of spaceflight and orbital missions. To solve this problem, researchers at the University of Utah propose to recover this waste using magnets.

Currently, about 7,500 metric tons of waste, the equivalent of 1,100 elephants, orbit our planet. Jake Abbott, a professor of robotics at the University of Utah, predicts that the Earth could soon even start to look like Saturn … except that its rings will be made of junk! However, this debris is extremely dangerous for operational spacecraft: as the European Space Agency emphasizes, “a one-centimeter object would most likely put a spacecraft out of commission and penetrate the shields of the ISS.”

A threat that has emerged again recently, following a missile launch from Russia against one of its old satellites, an act that caused thousands of new debris, prompting the ISS crew to prepare for a possible emergency evacuation. More than 27,000 orbital pieces of debris measure over 10 centimeters and are closely followed by NASA and the US Department of Defense for the serious damage they could cause. It is estimated that between 200 and 400 pieces of debris fall to Earth each year! Therefore, it is urgent to find a solution before the situation worsens.

An approach that has proven its worth in the medical sector.

The problem is that these residues, which circulate for the most part in low orbit, rotate at dizzying speeds (of the order of 7 to 8 km / s), which gives them a very high kinetic energy. “Reach out to stop them with a robotic arm, it will break the arm and create more debris,” says Jake Abbott. Thus, to eliminate this waste of space, the scientist recommends using magnets. By rotating a magnet on the end of a robotic arm to create eddy currents, he said it would be possible to control and slow down fragments of space debris.

During his postdoctoral studies at the University of Zurich, Abbott worked primarily on the applications of magnets in surgery. In particular, he spent years developing a way to swim in a microscopic “submarine” through a human eye, in order to deliver drugs to the retina. “It took years to develop, but the math used is the foundation of everything we do now,” he says.

In fact, his research is now being used to guide precision eye surgeries in virtual reality. The system designed by Abbott and his team uses magnetic fields to create the sensation of actual surgical pressure in a virtual eye, giving practicing surgeons the most realistic experience possible.

His lab is also working to make colonoscopies more “enjoyable.” Unfortunately, the fear of this checkup is a huge obstacle to colon cancer early detection. The system developed by the team includes two small encapsulated chambers, which are precisely guided through the body by magnets. Its current design consists of a two-part capsule chamber, the two ends of which are connected by a short rubber cord. “The magnets would move the camera through you, like a little worm. Swallow a capsule, lie down on a table for a few hours, and voila, ”Abbott says.

Reduce the velocity of debris using eddy currents

How could magnetism solve the problem of space waste? Most are made of metal, but not all are magnetic. In this case, the magnets may appear ineffective. But Abbott relies on eddy currents – electrical currents that are created within an object subjected to a varying magnetic field (this is the phenomenon on which induction hobs operate).

The process devised by Abbott and his team can be summarized as follows: Consider space debris that is not magnetic, but conducts electricity. The robotic arms equipped with magnets at their ends are oriented towards this debris; the magnets rotate and generate eddy currents in the object, which create their own magnetic field. However, according to Lenz’s law, this field opposes the variation of the initial field. Thus, through precise calculations and careful modeling, it is possible to generate the necessary braking torque to slow down the rotating object, move it or even pick it up.

“We practically created the world’s first tractor beam. Now it’s just a matter of engineering. Build it and run it, ”the researcher told the Salt Lake Tribune. Other projects in development aim to solve the accumulation of space debris, such as the “giant tweezers” envisioned by ESA and ClearSpace, or space lasers to melt this debris. We can only hope that one of these concepts will be put into practice quickly before disasters multiply. ClearSpace’s first “clean-up” mission is scheduled a priori for 2025.

Nature, L. Pham et al.

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