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Growing Space Debris Could Give Earth Saturn-Like Rings

Increasing amounts of space debris over the years may soon give Earth its own Saturn-like rings.

Saturn is the only planet in our solar system with its own complex rings, which makes it stand out from the rest. Now, due to defunct satellites and anti-satellite missions, Earth may have rings of its own too.

The first-ever launch of an artificial satellite named Sputnik happened in October 1957. Accumulation of human-made debris in space also began with this launch. According to researchers from the University of Utah, US, the space around Earth is filled with so much junk that we may have to push it to form Saturn-like rings around our very own home planet using magnet technology.

According to the European Space Agency (ESA), there are 170 million fragments of floating space debris objects in the Earth’s orbit. These include natural meteoroids, broken pieces of artificial objects, and defunct satellites. While most of them are small, there are some 29,000 of fragments large enough (10 cm) even to hinder orbital missions and space flights.

The objects of all sizes can collide and disrupt orbital missions and space flights as well as the International Space Station (ISS) in different capacities, as per Business Insider. Space junk, categorized as a type of pollution, has grown rapidly since 1957. It currently amounts to 7,500 metric tons and is projected to grow exponentially in the future. This space debris poses a grave threat to the safety of astronauts, the International Space Station, and hundreds of functional satellites orbiting the Earth.

How Is Space Debris Harmful?

The ever-increasing debris can pose a significant threat to spacecraft, both manned and unmanned, as per Weather.com. It was also reported on November 15, that crew of the ISS was forced to take shelter in their evacuation spacecraft following encounters with debris.

This potentially dangerous debris appeared nearby and eventually, the space station was able to move away from the object. But it is worth noting that these objects have the potential to injure or even kill astronauts. The debris that is thought to be part of a satellite breakup is a junk fragment that was about to come crashing nearly at the speed of light.

In November, the International Space Station had to be moved by 1240 metres to dodge space junk of a demolished Chinese satellite. According to Roscomos, the minimum distance between the debris and the space station was just 600 metres, posing a threat to the ISS.

According to Weather.com, the initial space junk consisted of a bunch of copper needles sent to space by the US military way back in 1963. The US military detected weakness in the communication signals. Furthermore, they feared additional weakening in the ionosphere, which makes radio communication possible across the globe, and to be safe, the US military sent millions of copper needles into space. This was called Project Space Needles or Project West Ford, as a substitute to the ionosphere to reflect radio signals.

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The Salt Lake Tribune reports that a lot of this debris also falls on Earth, but most of it is usually broken in the atmosphere. The report also informs that the Earth is on course to have its own rings, but they will be exclusively made of junk. This is according to Jake Abbott, a professor and researcher at the University of Utah, who along with his team of engineers are working to clean up this junk using magnets.

The Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network sensors track more than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris, reports People. These have been known to pose significant problems for space crews as well as people on Earth. Since both spacecrafts and debris travel at extremely high speeds, an impact with even the smallest piece of debris could be catastrophic.

According to the National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service, a total of between 200 and 400 pieces of orbital debris fall to Earth each year. However, most of it burns up and disintegrates upon reentering the atmosphere.

Back in March, a five-foot piece of debris from a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle survived re-entry. It landed on a farm in Washington State and fortunately, no one was harmed.

How Will Earth Get Its Rings?

The atmosphere of the planet Earth can naturally clean the debris and pull artificial floating space junk fragments downward into its thick lower atmosphere, as per Weather.com. It eventually burns up within a few years, but the increasing carbon concentrations lead to reduced density of our planet’s upper atmosphere, which may lessen this effect, reports Weather.com.

There is no easy solution to growing carbon emissions. However, the recent study aims to clear this mess by spinning magnets and creating magnetic fields that can manage space objects even if they are not magnetic.

According to Weather.com, in an experiment, the team moved a copper ball on a plastic raft in a water tank. The experiment showed that when magnets were placed near the ball, it not only moved, but also rotated. Scientists suggest using this exact method to create robots that move the junk into Earth’s decaying orbit and form Saturn-like rings around the Earth.

Jake Abbott is a professor of robotics at the University of Utah. He says: “Earth is on course to have its own rings.” “They’ll just be made of junk,” he added. In addition to a not-so-cool ring, this method promises a new and innovative way to safeguard global space assets.

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According to the researchers, they now know how to rapidly spin magnets and create magnetic fields. Magnetic fields can manipulate space objects even if they are not made of magnetic material. Once developed, this technology can be used to make robots move the debris into a decaying orbit that in turn will look like a ring.

Abbott noted that cleaning up the space junk orbiting our planet is not as easy as collecting it with a robotic arm. This is because most pieces of debris are spinning, would just break off the arm and instead, he proposed using magnets.

Although not all of the space junk is metal, he insists that magnets “will work,” due to eddy currents. Since a spinning nonmagnetic object creates electricity, it can be used with spinning magnets to activate eddy currents, electrical currents shaped like whirlpools that create their own magnetic fields, as per People.

“We’ve basically created the world’s first tractor beam,” Abbott summarized to The Salt Lake Tribune. “It’s just a question of engineering now. Building and launching it.”

The findings of the study were published in Nature. it can be accessed: HERE
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