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Space has become a pile of trash.

According to NASA, there are more than 27,000 pieces of space debris larger than the size of a soft ball currently orbiting Earth, and they are moving at speeds of up to 17,500 miles per hour, which is enough speed to crush small pieces of debris. satellite. or a spaceship like an intergalactic cannon.

As such, clearing this unwanted space will be an important task if the agency is to launch more rockets and satellites into orbit. University of Utah mechanical engineering professor Jake J. Abbott leads a team of researchers who have discovered a way to manipulate orbital debris using rotating magnets. With this technology, robots could one day gently direct used items into decaying orbit or dig into space without actually touching them, or they could repair damaged objects to extend their life.

Their research is detailed in the paper, “Skillful Magnetic Manipulation of Conductive Non-magnetic Objects,” published this month in the journal Science. amarah. The co-authors are graduate students U Lan Pham, Griffin Tabor, Ashkan Pourkand, former graduate student Jacob LB Aman, and assistant professor at U College of Computing Tucker Hermans. You can read A copy of the paper is here.

The concept involves moving a non-magnetic metal object in space using a rotating magnet. When metal debris is exposed to a changing magnetic field, the electrons within the metal spin in circular rings, “like your coffee cup hovering and spinning,” Abbott said.

This process turns the debris into an electromagnet that essentially generates torque and force, allowing you to control where the debris goes without actually catching it.

While the idea of ​​using this type of magnetic current to manipulate objects in space is not new, what Abbott and his team discovered is that using multiple sources of magnetic fields in a coordinated manner allows them to move objects in six degrees of motion. , including playing it. Previously, it was only known how to move it with one degree of movement, such as pushing it.

“What we want to do is manipulate it, not just push it but actually manipulate it like you do on the pitch,” he said. “This form of clever manipulation is unprecedented.”

With this new knowledge, scientists, for example, could prevent a faulty satellite from spinning uncontrollably to repair it, something that was previously impossible.

“You have to take this crazy object floating in space, and you have to put it in a position that can be manipulated with a robotic arm,” Abbott said. “But if it gets out of hand, you can break the robot’s arm while doing it, which can create more debris.”

This method also allows scientists to manipulate very fragile objects. While a robotic arm can break things because its claws exert a force on a part, these magnets will apply less force to the rest of the body so no part is damaged.

To test their research, the team used a series of magnets to move a copper ball over a plastic raft in a water tank (the best way to simulate slow-moving objects in microgravity). The magnet moves the ball not only in a square, but also rotates the ball.

The newly discovered process could be used with rotating magnets on a robotic arm, static magnets that produce a rotating magnetic field, or superconducting electromagnets such as those used in MRI scanners, Abbott said.

Abbott believes that the principle of manipulating non-magnetic metal objects with magnets could also have applications beyond removing space debris.

“I started to open my mind to the potential of existing applications,” he said. “We have a new way to apply styles to objects for precise alignment without touching them.”

But for now, the idea can be immediately applied to help solve the problem of space debris orbiting the Earth.

NASA tracks thousands of space debris in the same way air traffic controllers track planes. You have to know where they are because you might accidentally bump into them,” Abbott said. “The US government and world governments are aware of this problem as more and more of this stuff is piling up every day.”

For more details about this research, Click here. hear amarah The podcast shows Abbott talking about the project, Click here.