New Technology Developed at the U to be Used to Remove Space Debris

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By Chandler Joost, News Writer


A new technology described as “omnimagnets” was developed by two University of Utah professors and will now be put to use 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 their robots in many different ways like repairs to satellites or deorbiting space debris.

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

Tucker Hermans, associate professor in the school of computing, also helped develop the technology.

Abbott said when a satellite or a piece of space debris needs to be accessed in order to perform repairs or deorbit it, robotic equipment runs the risk of breaking up the space debris or the robotic arm, thus creating more debris. Many more complications exist when trying to sync two objects orbiting the earth in order to grab onto them.

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

Omnimagnets were developed in order to solve some of these issues — synchronizing a robotic satellite with a piece of space debris and then stopping that object’s tumble. Abbott said some people have developed solutions to deorbit objects, but stopping its tumble was still an issue.

“The problem is it’s just this one step where this thing is tumbling, and you don’t know how to safely grab onto it to deorbit it,” Abbott said.

Hermans said this technology can also be applied to objects in space that are not magnetic, as well as to pieces of space debris that teams operating the robots haven’t designed and of which they don’t know the exact dimensions. Hermans has focused his research on this type of issue.

“I’ve been working 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 was teaching me about this phenomenon of eddy currents where we could manipulate, you know, nonmagnetic objects that are conductive using magnetic fields.” 

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

“I just got really interested in the question of if it were possible for us to do that,” Abbott said. “Same level of manipulation of metals that weren’t magnetic.”

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

Hermans said he is pleased that their technology is being put to use and hopeful their research continues to produce positive results for society.

“We’re really hopeful that this is going to be like a big, long-standing set of research that we do for 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 being funded by two separate grants from the U.S. Space Force as well as a grant from the National Science Foundation.


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