Scientists experiment with a real tractor beam to clean up space debris

Once operational, their device „can essentially haul away debris without touching it.”

Straight out of Star Trek

A team of engineers is working on a real-life „tractor beam,” a staple of spacefaring science fiction that can push and pull objects at a distance without making contact.

Their early design ideas seem to be working, with researchers calculating that they can move several tons of material — admittedly very slowly — at speeds of about 200 mph in two to three months.

„We create an attractive or repulsive electrostatic force,” said Hanspeter Schaap, chair of the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. Press release. „It’s like the tractor beam you see on 'Star Trek,’ though not nearly as powerful.”

While 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 debris polluting Earth’s increasingly crowded orbits — not to mention one of those rare moments when it actually does. Technology is advancing towards a golden age of science fiction.

Opposites attract

The researchers are testing their designs using a large, specialized vacuum chamber that simulates the conditions in space.

Their favorite concept, called the „Electrostatic Tractor,” uses more or less the same principles as sticking a balloon to your hair after rubbing it on your head.

In theory, at a distance of about 50 to 90 feet, a spacecraft could use the device to fire a beam of electrons at a piece of space debris, inducing a negative charge on the debris while creating a positive one on the servicing spacecraft. Gradually attracts them together.

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„With that attractive force, you can drag the debris around without touching it,” said Julian Hammerl, a CU Boulder aerospace engineer who was involved in the research. „It acts as what we call a virtual tether.”

Real estate cleaning

The space debris problem should not be underestimated. According to Schaub, geosynchronous orbit (GEO), the much-coveted region of space where satellites can remain stationary relative to Earth, is already running out of real estate.

„Jeo is like the Bel Air of space,” Schaub described.

Additionally, NASA has recently reaffirmed the seriousness of the space debris problem March reportIt concluded that a more practical solution might be to lightly crush the debris rather than remove it from orbit entirely.

That’s easier said than done, and according to the researchers, physical contact with debris is a potential hazard, making using a tractor beam even more of a — 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. „Things move very fast and often unpredictably.”

Schaap added that tractor beams can be a remarkably inexpensive cleaning tool, adding that a craft can move up to „dozens of items over its lifetime.”

„It keeps your costs down,” he added. „Nobody wants to spend a billion dollars moving trash.”

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