Two-way ion thruster could blow space junk out of orbit


A team of researchers from Tohoku University in Japan and the Australian National University has come up with a plasma beam shooting satellite that could push space debris out of orbit. Mounted on a satellite, the two-way facing beam is produced by a bespoke ion thruster that uses its discharge to decelerate debris so it can burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

There are over 7,000 pieces of man-made debris orbiting the Earth – most of its consisting of derelict satellites, spent boosters and general rubbish – all the way down to paint flecks. With each one having the potential of causing a devastating collision, the job of cleaning up the orbital lanes around the Earth is a major concern. However, the field is still very much in its infancy, with engineers developing space sails, harpoons, nets and other devices to snare and deorbit debris.

Called the ion beam shepherd, the new device being investigated by a team of researchers led by Kazunori Takahashi of Tohoku University in Japan Tohoku University would see an unmanned hunter satellite match orbits with a piece of debris, then use the exhaust from its ion thruster to slow down the target until it burns up on re-entry into the atmosphere. In principle, this is as simple as cleaning dust off of a keyboard with a can of compressed air, but in practice, things are a bit more complicated.

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