Scientists create a beam to tug objects in space

American scientists are creating a beam that can attract objects in space. Its operation will be based on an electron gun and the principle of electrostatic attraction. The device is planned to be used to remove debris from orbit.

Magnetic tractor beam. Source: Tobias Roetsch

Beam from science fiction

In science fiction, a tractor beam is often described as a device that lets you attract one spacecraft to another without any contact between them. At first glance, this seems like a fantasy, but American researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder recently stated that this was not the case.

In science fiction, similar devices usually work thanks to such things as “force fields” or “artificial gravity”. They really either look like nonsense or as something unattainable from the point of view of modern science. However, the researchers suggested using a much more proven method: electrostatic attraction.

This is exactly the force that causes the different poles of the magnet to attract. There is no atmosphere in space, and therefore no friction. Therefore, even small electrostatic forces are capable of moving even very heavy metal objects slowly. 

However, in order for all this to work, it is still necessary to somehow magnetize the target. Researchers suggest using electronic guns for this. A stream of tiny particles will create a negative charge on the target’s surface, while the gun will remain positively charged, and the two spacecraft will gradually begin to converge.

Device against space debris

The main thing that scientists want to use the new tractor beam for is cleaning up all kinds of debris from orbit, first of all, inactive satellites. They pose a considerable danger to the spacecraft that are located there. A good example of this is the collision of Iridium 33 and Cosmos-2251, which occurred in 2009.

After the spacecraft with the electronic gun approaches the target, it will begin to magnetize it. As a result, the spacecraft will slowly begin to converge. Space debris will begin to slow down, and its orbit will decrease. As a result, it will quickly descend from orbit.

There are quite a lot of “orbital tractors” constructions being offered now. For the most part, they rely on mechanical structures to capture satellites: harpoons and nets. The electron gun differs from them in the fact that it cannot damage the target, which means that dangerous debris does not form. 

State of things now

Today, scientists already have a research installation that works in their laboratory. With its help, they remotely magnetize various objects. However, so far, the technology has not even come close to practical application. In addition, it has a number of disadvantages.

The most important of them is that the magnetic tractor beam acts extremely slowly. Firstly, this leads to the fact that in order to de-orbit all available non-functional vehicles, a lot of “tractors” will be needed. Secondly, it is simply irrational to use them to neutralize small pieces of debris.

Nevertheless, the researchers are already planning to test their installation in space. However, to do this, they will first have to find a manufacturer of satellite platforms, i.e., go the same way that all satellite developers are moving.

According to

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