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UW professor on mission to clear out space junk

In this artist's conception, a magnetized beam of ionized plasma is applied to a spacecraft headed on an interplanetary journey. The same technology could be used to remove dead satellites and other debris from Earth orbit. (UW image)

Could you live without your cable TV, GPS or other
technology that depends on satellites?

A University of Washington professor who specializes in
space warns they’re in peril from all the junk floating in
orbit.

“There are things as big as shuttle rocket boosters and
rocket parts to very small parts the size of ball bearings
out there,” says Robert Winglee, head of the University of
Washington’s Earth and Space Sciences Department.

And Winglee says just one little piece hurtling through
space can damage or even destroy a satellite.

The UW professor has come up with a solution to push
the space junk out of the way, taking a page straight out
of Star Wars.

“It is sort of Star Wars like in that what we are trying
to do is focus a plasma beam made of ions and electrons,”
says Winglee.

The beam could send the debris hurtling out of orbit into
the earth’s atmosphere, where it would harmlessly burn up.

“I think it’s very practical. We have great success in
the laboratory to make these beam plasma systems.”

But Winglee is eager to try one in space. He says the
technology exists now and could be implemented through a
standard satellite mission costing approximately $300
million. And he says the investment is well worth it
considering the global importance of satellites.

“If you want your satellites, if you want your modern day
communications you’ve got to have this debris cleared,”
Winglee says.

Winglee and his students at the UW continue working on
other applications for the ion beam as well, including
using it to propel a spacecraft.

The professor says with a specialized receptor on a ship,
he could get it accelerating in the vacuum of space to
speeds possibly topping 18,000 miles per hour. He says
that could one day make it possible to travel to Mars and
back in about 90 days.

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