Illustration of the current state of space debris orbiting the Earth.

Saturn is perhaps the most easily identifiable planet in the solar system and the obvious reason is its striking rings, but according to a scientist’s prediction, the Earth is not far from having its own rings, but ours would not be ice like ours neighbor, but garbage.

“The Earth is on the way to having its own rings”says University of Utah professor Jake Abbott. “They will just be made of garbage.”

There are 170 million pieces of space junk orbiting the Earth. Most of them are quite small, But 23,000 of them are bigger than a baseball and worrying enough to be tracked by the Department of Defense. Space debris endangers space flights, orbital missions, and the astronauts who pilot them.

Space debris even falls to Earth. Usually it breaks down in the atmosphere, but not always. It is estimated that between 200 and 400 pieces of debris fall each year.

Earlier this year, a part of a Falcon 9 launch vehicle made an “uncontrolled reentry” and lit up the night sky. A 5-foot section of the vehicle survived re-entry and landed on a farm in Washington state.

NASA image showing space debris around Earth.
NASA image showing space debris around Earth.

Space debris, considered a type of pollution, has grown dramatically since 1957. We have 7,500 metric tons of garbage in orbit, the equivalent of 1,100 elephants floating above our heads. Herd size is projected to continue to grow exponentially unless we do something about it.

“Most of that garbage is going around,” Abbott explained in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “If you reach out to stop him with a robotic arm, you will break your arm and create more debris.”

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“Since both debris and spacecraft travel at extremely high speeds (approximately 25,000 km / h in low Earth orbit), the impact of even a small fragment of orbital debris with a spacecraft could create big problems,” he notes. respect NASA.

So how do you get trash out of space? The answer, Abbott says, is magnets.

Abbott is a professor of robotics at the University of Utah, but what really draws him is the magnets.

He remembers a presentation he saw when he was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University.

“Under a microscope, they had this little maze with almost a little submarine in it. It moved back and forth and spun, making its way through the maze ”, bill. A task completed entirely with magnets.

“Very simplistic compared to what we do now, but it seemed magical,” he highlights.

Magic led to postdoctoral studies at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, where he worked primarily on magnet applications in surgery. He spent years working with a team on how to make a microscopic “submarine” swim through a human eye and deliver drugs to the retina.

“It took years to develop, but the math used is the foundation of everything we do now.”explains the scientist.

Jake Abbott is a University of Utah scientist who claims to have the solution to the space debris problem.
Jake Abbott is a University of Utah scientist who claims to have the solution to the space debris problem.

“Everything” includes the use of magnets to guide precision virtual reality eye surgeries.

“If 30 surgeries are needed before a surgeon is truly competent, we want those first 30 or more surgeries to be performed on virtual patients, and we want them to be as realistic as possible.“, Add.

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The Abbott system uses magnetic fields to create the sensation of real surgical pressure with a virtual eye.

His lab is also working to make colonoscopies more enjoyable. Using capsule-based cameras, they are developing a system to precisely move the capsules using magnets. Its current design is a two-part capsule-cam where the two ends are connected with a short, rubbery rope.

“The magnets would move the cam through you like a one-inch worm,” dice. “Swallow a capsule, lie down on a table for a couple of hours, that’s it.”

She points out that fear and hesitation around colonoscopies are a major barrier to early detection of colon cancer.

But what does this have to do with space junk?

The scientist believes that magnets are the key to solving the problem.

You can imagine space junk as a lot of metal, and much of it is, but not all of it is magnetic. So magnets won’t work, right?

Well Abbott says yes, “Due to eddy currents.”

The principle and his team’s findings applied to space debris are detailed in a recent paper published in Nature.

In it he posits that a rotating piece of non-magnetic space junk that can conduct electricity. Thanks to this you can extend magnets towards it at the end of robotic arms. The magnets rotate and when they do, they activate theeddy currents, eddy currents in the object that create their own magnetic field.

These activated magnetic fields push back on the field that created them.

With lots of math and careful modeling, controlled force and torque can be used to slow down the spinning object, move it, and pick it up.

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The short version: “Basically, we have created the first tractor beam in the world”, explica Abbott. “Now it is just a question of engineering. You have to build it and launch it into space ”.

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