NASA developing tractor beam for satellites using hoverboard tech

3 Sep 2015

CubeSats being launched from the International Space Station. Image via NASA

With the help of a start-up’s hoverboard technology, NASA is hoping to develop a tractor beam system that could manipulate a satellite’s movements using magnetic fields.

While journalists are quick to exaggerate technology in space as being akin to what we’ve seen in science fiction, the technology being developed jointly between NASA and Arx Pax is, in effect, a tractor beam.

Launched last April, the ‘magnetising’ start-up first gained notoriety for its hoverboard Kickstarter project, which flew off the virtual shelves after pro-skater Tony Hawk was filmed using it in a skate park.

But now, the company has teamed up with NASA as part of a Space Act Agreement (SAA) to bring the same magnetic field technology to space to be able to manipulate satellites to their will.

The purpose of the collaboration, Arx Pax said, is to use its Magnetic Field Architecture (MFA) technology to create micro-satellite capture devices that can aim a magnetic tractor beam to couple satellites from a distance.

These microsatellite devices will likely be comprised of CubeSats, tiny satellites that are increasingly launched in large payloads, each performing different scientific tasks.

Both Arx Pax and NASA will work together to design a device with the ability to attract one object to another from a distance that must be able to repel satellites as well.

Arx Pax calculations

Arx Pax’s lab calculations. Image via Arx Pax

From orbital trash collectors, to revolutionary guidance satellites

Given that objects in orbit are travelling thousands of kilometres per second, and the growing threat of collision leading to potentially harmful space debris, a contactless solution of manipulating satellites is considered an important NASA project.

With this in mind, the very notion of a magnetic satellite could also pave the way for orbital space trash collectors, using the satellites to gather potentially harmful debris that could put astronauts or other satellites in harm’s way.

According to Fortune, it would also allow not just one satellite to manipulate another, but have a fleet of these CubeSats working together in formation creating a hive-mind satellite that could make reading data from Earth much more accurate, such as GPS location.

“Our collaboration marks a significant milestone for Arx Pax,” said Greg Henderson, co-founder and CEO at Arx Pax. “It’s exciting to work hand-in-hand with NASA’s brilliant team of scientists and engineers. We’re thrilled about the potential impact we can make together.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic