TechThe "space garbage truck". From sci-fi movies to reality

The "space garbage truck". From sci‑fi movies to reality

Electrostatic tractor from the Star Trek movie
Electrostatic tractor from the Star Trek movie
Images source: © Star Trek
1:33 PM EDT, October 30, 2023

Spaceships capturing objects in space using a laser beam often only exist within the realm of sci-fi cinema. However, we already possess such technology. Scientists have indeed developed what they call an "electrostatic tractor," which they believe could help solve the escalating problem of space debris cluttering our planet's orbit.

The stakes are high: the steadily increasing number of non-functioning satellites, debris, and other waste in Earth's orbit is alarming. Without intervention, this issue poses a serious threat to the advancement of space research and the space exploration industry.

Given that we have recognized the problem and have the necessary technology, why has nothing been done? Simply put, there's a scarcity of funds. Designing a prototype alone could cost millions of dollars, not to mention the costs related to crafting a fully functional, full-scale device.

Electrostatic Tractor: A Space Garbage Truck

Hanspeter Schaub, an aeronautical engineering professor at the University of California in Boulder, is highly aware of this issue. He conceived the idea of such a device in 2009, and over the subsequent decade, he and his colleagues refined the concept. Schaub hopes that the "tractor," which utilizes the attraction between positively and negatively charged objects, will ultimately serve to clean up the geostationary orbit.

But how exactly is it supposed to function? The "electrostatic tractor" would deploy a powerful electron gun that ejects negatively charged electrons toward the "dead" satellite. Consequently, the target would possess a negative charge, while the tractor could attract it using electrostatics, effectively "latching on" to it, and pulling it out of orbit.

Apart from monetary concerns, the device's slow operational rate is its biggest drawback. According to scientists cited by LiveScience, the removal of a single satellite from geostationary orbit could exceed a month's duration.

Finding a Solution for Space Garbage

Naturally, this is not the first concept proposed to combat space junk. Prior suggestions included the development of gigantic harpoons or even large nets to capture the defunct objects. However, these methods' primary downside was the necessity for physical contact, which might potentially damage the satellite further. In comparison, the contact-free "electrostatic tractor" doesn't have this issue.

Therefore, the optimal solution seems to be a mix of different space "garbage trucks." The "electrostatic tractor" would be better suited for the removal of satellites and other large objects, while smaller debris could be collected more efficiently and rapidly with a net. Action is undoubtedly required. The issue is set to worsen with each passing year. Thankfully, we possess the means to intervene. As stated by John Crassidis, a scientist at the University at Buffalo, "what's considered science fiction today, could become a reality tomorrow."

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