Scientists experiment with an actual tractor beam to clean up space junk

Once their machine is on, it can “haul up debris without ever touching it.”

Straight from Star Trek

A team of engineers is working on a realistic “tractor beam,” a basic sci-fi device in space that can remotely push and pull objects without contact.

Impressively, their early design concepts actually seem to work, with the researchers calculating that they could move a multi-ton object at a pace—admittedly very slow—of about 200 miles over a period of two to three months.

“We create an electrostatic force that is either attractive or repulsive,” said Hanspeter Schaub, chair of the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. press release. “It’s similar to the tractor beam you see in a Star Trek movie, although not quite as powerful.”

While it’s still a long way from being a worthy space prototype, a realistic tractor package could eventually be an invaluable tool for helping clean up the space junk polluting Earth’s increasingly crowded orbits — not to mention one of those rare moments when it’s Actual technology seems to be making its way into science fiction in the golden age.

Opposites attract

The researchers experiment with their designs using a large, specialized vacuum chamber that simulates the conditions of space.

Their favorite concept, something called an “electrostatic tug,” uses somewhat the same principles that make a balloon stick to your hair after you rub it on your head.

In theory, at a distance of about 50 to 90 feet, a spaceship could use the device to fire a beam of electrons at a large piece of space junk, creating a negative charge in the debris while producing a positive charge in the service ship, gradually drawing them together.

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“With that gravitational force, you can basically pull debris away without ever touching it,” said Julien Hammerl, a CU Boulder aeronautical engineer involved in the research. “It behaves like what we call a virtual rope.”

Real estate clearance

The space debris problem should not be underestimated. According to Schopp, geosynchronous orbit (GEO), a highly desirable area of ​​space where satellites can remain in a geostationary position, is already running out of real estate.

“Geo is like the Bel Air of space,” described Schaub.

In addition, NASA recently reaffirmed the seriousness of the space junk issue in A March reportwhich concluded that gently nudging the debris, rather than removing it from orbit entirely, might be the more practical solution.

Easier said than done, and according to the researchers, physical contact with debris is a potential hazard, which makes tractor beam use an – shall we say – attractive option.

“Touching things in space is very dangerous,” explained Kylie Champion, one of the researchers involved in the CU Boulder project. “Things move very quickly and often unexpectedly.”

Tractor beams can also be a much cheaper cleanup tool, Schaub added, as a vehicle equipped with one can move “dozens of things over its lifetime.”

“This lowers the cost significantly,” he added. Nobody wants to spend a billion dollars moving trash.

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