Could a Doomsday Machine-like Satellite Clean Up Space Debris?


In the classic Star Trek episode titled, “The Doomsday Machine,” Capt. James Kirk and the crew of the starship Enterprise did battle with a monstrous, self-sustaining spacecraft that refueled itself by chopping up planets and anything else in its way.

A new scientific paper proposed the deployment of a much smaller spacecraft that would refuel itself by consuming debris in Earth orbit. The paper was written by Lei Lan, Jingyang Li and Hexi Baoyin of Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Abstract: We present a design concept for a space engine that can continuously remove the orbit debris by using the debris as a propellant. Space robotic cleaner is adopted to capture the targeting debris and to transfer them into the engine. Debris with larger size is first disintegrated into small pieces by using a mechanical method. The planetary ball mill is then adopted to grind the pieces into micrometer or smaller powder.


The energy needed in this process is get from the nuclear and solar power. By the effect of gamma-ray photoelectric or the behavior of tangently rub of tungsten needles, the debris powered is charged. This behavior can be used to speed up the movement of powder in a tandem electrostatic particle accelerator. By ejecting the high-temperature and high-pressure charged powered from the nozzle of the engine, the continuously thrust is obtained. This thrust can be used to perform orbital maneuver and debris rendezvous for the spacecraft and robotic cleaner. The ejected charged particle will be blown away from the circumterrestrial orbit by the solar wind. By digesting the space debris, we obtain not only the previous thrust but also the clean space. In the near future, start trek will not just a dream, human exploration will extend to deep universe. The analysis shown, the magnitude of the specific impulse for debris engine is determined by the accelerating electrostatic potential and the charge-to-mass ratio of the powder.

It’s an interesting idea. But, it reminds me of that old saying about the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

  • JS_faster

    That is probably my favorite ST episode. Of course a concept like this has many technical details to overcome before it could ever be practical, and then, it would be (too) easy to weaponize.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Where are you going to get the neutronium for the hull? đŸ™‚

  • Douglas Messier

    One of my favorites, too. And Jimmy Doohan’s favorite episode.

  • Vladislaw

    My son has that picture as his screen saver.. I just never could get into that episode… he loved it.

  • Rocketplumber

    That looks like a solution in search of a problem. A far better method (in my humble opinion) is the electrodynamic debris eliminator, EDDE:

  • Douglas Messier

    I recall that years back the SciFi Channel (before it became SyFy) ran the original episodes uncut with commentary spots by the actors. James Doohan talked about how great it was to work with William Windom who he thought was one of the best character actors in the business.

    If I recall, these shows ran for 90 minutes and started at something like 11:30 at night. I remember watching it with lights off and really getting into the terror of the whole thing. Kirk and Decker were really out on the edge way beyond help, facing something truly monstrous that they didn’t know how to defeat, and the damn thing was heading into the heart of populated Federation space. The show really invoked the nuclear terror of mutual assured destruction.

    I also liked the conflict. The scene between Spock and Decker on the bridge really crackled with tension. Then there was the Constellation firing at the Doomsday Machine and Kirk is happy for a second. Great Scott. Then he sees the machine start pursing the Constellation. Uh oh. Scotty get us out of here.

    I’ve always thought the Doomsday Machine was a lot like the Borg only without the human element. Monolithic, difficult to defeat, focused on consuming rather than assimilating. The early Borg episodes invoke much the same feeling in me as the Doomsday Machine episode.

  • duheagle

    Quite agree. ‘The Doomsday Machine’ also prefigures ‘The Terminator’ as well as the Borg. One should also note – credit where it’s due – that this episode of Star Trek TOS was written by Norman Spinrad. Many of the best TOS episodes were written by pro SF writers as opposed to pro TV writers.