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Space has become a trash heap.

According to NASA, there are more than 27,000 pieces of bigger than the size of a softball currently orbiting Earth, and they are traveling at speeds of up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for a small chunk to damage a satellite or spacecraft like an intergalactic cannonball.

Consequently, cleaning up this space junk will be an important task if agencies are to shoot more rockets and satellites into orbit. University of Utah mechanical engineering professor Jake J. Abbott is leading a team of researchers that has discovered a method to manipulate orbiting debris with spinning magnets. With this technology, robots could one day gently maneuver the scrap to a decaying orbit or further out into space without actually touching it, or they could repair malfunctioning objects to extend their life.

Their research is detailed in the paper, "Dexterous magnetic manipulation of conductive non-magnetic objects," published this month in the science journal, Nature. The co-authors include U graduate students Lan Pham, Griffin Tabor and Ashkan Pourkand, former graduate student Jacob L. B. Aman, and U School of Computing associate professor Tucker Hermans.

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