spaceSpace and Physics

"Back To The Future" Spacecraft Turns Orbital Junk Into Fuel


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

4244 "Back To The Future" Spacecraft Turns Orbital Junk Into Fuel
There is a growing amount of space junk in orbit. Johan Swanepoel/Shutterstock

Great Scott! Is what scientists at the Tsinghua University in Beijing probably exclaimed when they wrote their latest paper. Their research shows how an Earth-orbiting spacecraft could make use of the growing abundance of space debris by actually using the junk as propellant, or fuel – just like the DeLorean did in "Back To The Future."

The research, available on Arxiv, presents a possible solution to the growing amount of space junk in orbit. Aside from numerous pieces of spacecraft debris there are countless bits of paint, micrometeroids, and more, numbering in the millions, in Earth orbit. Even spacecraft like the International Space Station have to be maneouvred occasionally to avoid collisions.


In this new solution to the problem, a spacecraft would turn debris into a plasma of postitive ions and electrons by heating it to a high temperature, reports MIT Technology Review. To create this plasma, the spacecraft would sweep up debris in a net, focusing on debris smaller than 10 centimeters (4 inches) in size. A rotating cylinder then grinds the debris into a powder, which is heated, and the ions of which are passed through a powerful electric field, generating thrust.

The technology has yet to be actually tested, but the theory seems sound.

Shown is an illustration of how the technology would work. Credit: Lan et al

The process is, understandably, quite complicated, and there are still a number of unknowns. These include how different sizes and types of debris would respond to this process, and what sort of thrust could be produced. Nonetheless, the researchers are confident, and say their design could be used for interplanetary journeys as well as missions in Earth orbit.


β€œIn the near future, Star Trek will not just be a dream; human exploration will extend to the deep universe,” they write in the paper.

The design of the spacecraft is such that it could hypothetically operate indefinitely in Earth orbit with an almost never-ending supply of fuel. The only limitation would be the source of power the spacecraft itself requires, which could be solar or nuclear according to the researchers.

Whether this novel proposal to solving the space debris problem comes to fruition remains to be seen. But hey, at least we got to mention "Back to the Future" and "Star Trek" in the same article. Use the force McFly, as Captain Kirk once said

spaceSpace and Physics
  • tag
  • fuel,

  • spacecraft,

  • Space junk,

  • Earth orbit,

  • propellant,

  • clean up,

  • thrust