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Revolutionizing Space Cleanup: Tractor Beams of the Future Tackle Junk in Orbit

Here’s another advance in technology that brings us one step closer to the Star Trek universe: tractor beams.

The technical name is “electrostatic tractor.” Instead of drawing a shuttlecraft into a docking bay, the tractor beam will maneuver space junk safely out of Earth’s orbit.

As the commercial space industry lifts off, the number of new satellites has grown so quickly that space junk has become a concern. Breakages, old equipment, and discarded rocket boosters have the space around Earth looking a little like a junkyard.

This garbage can collide with working spacecraft or plummet dangerously to earth. An atmosphere cluttered with space debris is known as Kessler Syndrome. For stargazers, it also creates an increasingly confusing view of the night sky when sunlight catches them. Some objects shine more brightly than most stars.

The electrostatic tractor won’t work by using artificial gravity or energy fields, like the ones on Star Trek. These remain science fiction. Instead, it would use positive and negative charges to pull junk in a desired direction.

Charged particles

An electron gun would fire negatively charged electrons at, for example, a broken satellite. These electrons give the satellite a positive charge. The electrostatic attraction between the two objects then lock them together at a range of 30m.

The tractor would then use its own propulsion to pull the object into distant space before returning to its position. This touchless solution avoids the potential hazards associated with harpooning, lassoing, and netting — other ideas to remove space junk.

The electrostatic tractor is not without challenges. Removing the junk would have to be a slow, careful operation to prevent collisions with other objects. So slow, in fact, that the tractor beam likely won’t be able to keep up with the increase in space junk.

The other problem is cost. “The science is pretty much there, but the funding is not,” Kaylee Champion of the Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at the University of Colorado told LiveScience.

The main cost would be building and launching the device. It’s hard to see how an investor would get any sort of return, so who would pay for this? Queue the need, perhaps, for an intergalactic billionaire with environmental leanings.


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