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New technology developed at U to be used to remove space debris


(Photo by Pixabay: https://www.pexels.com/photo/planet-earth-220201/)

A new technology described as “omnimagnets” was developed by two professors at the University of Utah and will now be used by a robotics company based in New Hampshire to help clean up space debris.

the company, Rogue Space Systems Corporation will use the new technology on its robots in many different ways such as repairing satellites or orbiting space debris.

According to Jake Abbott, a professor of mechanical engineering who helped develop omnimagnets, the technology consists of three electromagnets that create a magnetic field to capture a piece of space debris and stop that tumble to repair or flip an object in space.

Tucker Hermans, an associate professor in the School of Computing, also helped develop the technology.

Abbott said that when a satellite or piece of space debris needs to be accessed to perform repairs or turn it around, robotic equipment runs the risk of breaking up the space debris or robotic arm, creating more debris. Many more complications exist when trying to synchronize two objects orbiting the Earth to grab them.

“But the problem with these objects is that they’ve been flying around in the Earth’s magnetic field and off their own dynamics for a long time, potentially,” Abbott said.

Omnimagnets were developed to solve some of these problems—synchronizing a robotic satellite with a piece of space junk and then stopping the object’s fall. Abbott said some people have developed solutions to deorbit objects, but stopping its fall was still a problem.

“The problem is, there’s just this one step where this thing falls, and you don’t know how to safely grab it to turn it around,” Abbott said.

Hermans said this technique could also be applied to objects in space that are not magnetic, as well as to pieces of space debris that teams using the robots have not designed and do not know the exact dimensions of. Hermans has focused his research on this type of question.

“I’ve worked in collaboration with Professor Abbott on some other projects, and we thought, well, what would it mean to do manipulation of objects where we haven’t designed the objects,” Hermans said. “At the same time, you know, he taught me about this phenomenon of eddy currents where we could manipulate, you know, non-magnetic objects that are conductive using magnetic fields.”

Abbott said that it has been known that magnetic objects can be manipulated with a magnet for a long time, but what is special about this technology is that they can manipulate non-magnetic objects in space. Plus, they can do more than just push and pull an object with these omnimagnets – they allow six degrees of movement.

“I just got really interested in the question of whether it was possible for us to do that,” Abbott said. “The same level of manipulation of metals that were not magnetic.”

Abbott said his interest in manipulating non-magnetic objects also coincided with the growing problem of space debris, which ultimately led to this new technology being used by the Rogue s.

Hermans said he is excited to see their technology being used and hopes their research continues to yield positive results for society.

“We’re really hopeful that this will be like a big long-term research that we do over the next few years that can hopefully make a real contribution to society and not just write some papers.”

According to Abbott, the work being done is funded by two separate grants from the US Space Force as well as a grant from the National Science Foundation.

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