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
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.