A new technology described as “omnimagnets” has been developed by two University of Utah professors and will now be used by a New Hampshire-based robotics company to help clean up space debris.
Rogue Space Systems Corporation will use its new robot technology in many different ways, such as repairing satellites or deorbiting space debris.
According to Jake Abbott, a professor of mechanical engineering who helped develop omnimagnets, the technology consists of three electromagnets that create a magnetic field to catch a piece of space debris and stop it falling to repair or deorbit an object in space.
Tucker Hermans, an associate professor in the School of Computing, also helped develop the technology.
Abbott said that when there is a need to access a satellite or piece of space debris to perform repairs or deorbit, the robotic equipment risks destroying the space debris or the robotic arm, thereby creating more debris. Many more complications exist when trying to synchronize two objects orbiting the earth to catch them.
“But the problem with these objects is that they’ve been flying around in the Earth’s magnetic field and on their own momentum for a long time, potentially,” Abbott said.
Omnimagnets were developed to solve some of these problems – synchronizing a robotic satellite with a piece of space debris and then stopping that object from falling. Abbott said some people have developed solutions to deorbit objects, but stopping them from falling is still a problem.
“The problem is that this thing is just this one step where this thing flips over, and you don’t know how to safely grab it to deorbit it,” Abbott said.
Hermans said this technology could also be applied to objects in space that are not magnetic, as well as to pieces of space debris that the robotic teams have not designed and whose exact dimensions they do not know. Hermans has focused his research on this type of problem.
“I worked in collaboration with Professor Abbott on some other projects and we thought about what it would mean to do object manipulation where we didn’t design the objects,” Hermans said. “At the same time, you know, he was teaching me about this phenomenon of eddy currents, where we can manipulate, you know, non-magnetic objects that are conductive using magnetic fields.”
Abbott said that it has been known that magnetic objects can be manipulated using a magnet for a long time, but what is special about this technology is that it can manipulate non-magnetic objects in space. Plus, they can do more than just push and pull an object with these omnimagnets—they allow for six degrees of motion.
“I just got really interested in whether we could do this,” Abbott said. “The same level of manipulation of non-magnetic metals.”
Abbott said his interest in manipulating non-magnetic objects also coincided with the growing problem of space debris, which ultimately led to the use of this new technology by the Rogue s.
Hermans said he is pleased that their technology is being used and hopes that their research will continue to produce positive results for society.
“We’re really hoping that this will be like a big, long-term body of research that we do over the next few years that can hopefully make a real contribution to society, not just write some papers.”
According to Abbott, the work was funded by two separate grants from the US Space Force, as well as a grant from the National Science Foundation.