An Orbiting Garbage Collector That Eats Space Junk To Fuel Itself

Om nom nom

Space Junk
An artist's impression of space debris in low-Earth orbit. The U.S. government wants a better surveillance system to keep track of the thousands of space junk pieces.ESA

Space junk--both manufactured and natural--has been orbiting our planet and threatening satellites and spacecraft with collisions. And accordingly, engineers and scientists have been devising ways to get rid of the mess. But whether it's a spacefaring robot or spacecraft carrying nets or traps, it requires power, and that's an expensive prospect. So, engineers at the Tsinghua University in Beijing have proposed a design concept for a space debris engine that can eat its way through the junk and convert it into plasma fuel to sustain its mission

A sketch of how the proposed engine would work
Illustration via Debris Engine: A Potential Thruster for Space Debris Removal

The concept, posted to arXiv, details an engine that could ingest debris, break it into tiny pieces (if it happens to be a large chunk), and then grind it (or blast with a laser) into a powder. Heating that powder up could then render it into a plasma, to be used as fuel. And since we have so much space junk to clean up, this engine could keep these helpful space vacuums zooming around space for a long time.

The engineers aren't stopping there. In their paper, they muse on other potential applications: "More important, it provides a new idea for asteroid exploration and interplanetary flight for its sustainable fuel supplement," they write.