Saturn, the sixth planet from the Sun and the second-largest in our solar system, has the most spectacular and complex ring system. Earth may soon have its own set of rings, according to researchers at the University of Utah, US. These rings which may develop around our planet, however, will be made up of space debris. This comes as no surprise with the rising number of defunct satellites and growing anti-satellite tests, including the latest one by Russia.
There are currently 170 million pieces of space junk in orbit around the Earth, according to the European Space Agency (ESA). Most of these are small, but some are large enough to threaten space flights and orbital missions. Space junk, considered a type of pollution, has grown dramatically in the past decades — by about 7,500 metric tonnes.
“Earth is on course to have its own rings,” Jake Abbott, a professor of robotics at the University of Utah, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “They’ll just be made of junk,” he added. Abbott has worked with magnets for years. He and his team of engineers are now working to find ways to clean up the space junk, using magnets.
The researchers say they have figured out how to rapidly spin magnets and manipulate the objects at the centre using magnetic fields, even if they are not made up of magnetic metal — such as space debris. They tested their research by moving a copper ball on a plastic raft in a tank of water. The magnets moved the sphere not only in a square but also rotated the ball.
The researchers say the technology can be used one day to make robots move the junk into a decaying orbit or move it away into space without even having to physically touch it.
The research has been published in a recent article in the Nature journal. Abbott says it is just a question of engineering now: building and launching the technology to create Earth’s own rings.