Engineers develop rocket engine that could convert space debris to fuel

By @iamkarlatecson on
Space Debris
Residents show a piece of debris from the heat shield of an Indian Ariane VA221 launcher on Areoa beach in the city of Curuca, Brazil, May 19, 2015. The piece, along with other pieces, was found by a local man in a swamp near the beach and was identified by Deviprasad Karnik, the director of the Public Relations Unit of Indian Space Research Organisation as a piece of an Ariane VA221 launcher used to carry a GSAT-16 communication satellite. Karnik also said that Indian satellite launchers do not reach the north of Brazil. Picture taken on May 19, 2015. Reuters/Tarso Sarraf

Scientists in China have designed a revolutionary engine that converts space debris into fuel to move itself as it cleans up junk. 

According to engineers at Tsinghua University in Beijing, space debris is the by-product of human activities in space which includes defunct rockets and satellites, ejection from the rockets and spacecraft, the waste of manned space mission and the products of the collision from other debris.

Space debris is a growing threat for Earth-orbiting spacecraft, and analysts say the future does not look any better. Collisions in space can cause space debris, which can trigger a runaway chain reaction that will fill the skies with ever increasing numbers of fragments, as reported by MIT Technology Review

Any element can be converted into a plasma of positive ions and electrons when temperature is high enough, which can serve as a propellant, the researchers claim. 

In their attempts to address issue on space debris, Lei Lan and his colleagues aimed to clean up junk that is smaller than 10 centimetres in size. While laser can generally tackle space debris, it cannot handle small fragments. 

Space robotic cleaner is adopted to capture the targeting debris and to transfer them into the engine, the researchers say.

“Debris with larger size is first disintegrated into small pieces by using a mechanical method. The planetary ball mill is then adopted to grind the pieces into micrometer or smaller powder,” they wrote in the study.

According to the MIT Technology Review, the powder produced is heated and fed into a system that separates positively charged ions from negatively charged electrons.

“The positive ions then pass into a powerful electric field that accelerates them to high energy, generating thrust as they are expelled as exhaust. The electrons are also expelled to keep the spacecraft electrically neutral,” the article described.

The energy needed in this process can be obtained from nuclear and solar power, the team says. 

They hope their discovery will effectively address the pressing problem of space debris, just like what happened after the 2009 collision between the Iridium 33 satellite of USA and the Kosmos 2251 satellite of Russia.

The high-speed collision created over 1,000 fragments greater than 10 centimetres in size and a much larger number of smaller pieces, says the MIT Technology Review. This debris spread out around the planet in a deadly cloud. 

“From the recent research, the collision probability between satellite and debris will find a sharp increase which would cause chain reactions disastrously in the next decade or another decade,” researchers at the Tsinghua University say.

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