Scientists from China's Tsinghua University have developed a spacecraft that collects debris through its travels and uses it for fuel to continue its journey, according to Engadget. Space debris poses numerous threats to spacecraft and satellites that orbit the Earth, and although we have lasers to eliminate larger pieces of space junk, this is the first solution that may eliminate the smaller pieces that are difficult to track, as outlined in the study.
The spacecraft takes advantage of a net that is specially designed to catch debris that are less than 10 cm, and pass them though a ball mill. Subsequently, this rotating cylinder crushes the junk down into a fine powder that is then heated and passed through a system that divides it into positive and negatively charged ions. While the negative ions are thrown back into space, the positively charged ions are pushed through an electric field in order to increase their energy and generate thrust for the craft.
Although the spacecraft sounds promising, it is still unclear on how it will generate power - it won't need propellant, but it will still need a power source and where this will come from has still not been determined, according to MIT Technology Review.
Another factor that needs to be further researched is the fact that the thrust produced by the debris will depend on its characteristics, including density and the size of its positive ions. These variables make it hard to gauge how much energy will be generated for the craft from each piece of debris.
In addition to focusing on the problem of space debris, the scientists are also hoping to use the technology for other applications. "More important, it provides a new idea for asteroid exploration and interplanetary flight for its sustainable fuel supplement," they said.