Lasers could blast space junk out of orbit

A Japanese research team proposes mounting a powerful laser on the ISS to help rid Earth's orbital space of debris.
By Kathy Fey | Apr 19, 2015
Defunct satellites and other expired technology have been building up as space junk in orbit around Earth for some time, amounting to an estimated half million pieces of flying flotsam. Future cleanup of this ever-increasing cloud of debris seems necessary to plan for, but the best method of ridding Earth's skies of the debris has been under debate.

The Riken research institute in Japan has suggested a new idea for ridding orbital space of the junk. They propose using a fiber optic laser mounted onto the International Space Station to blast the debris out of the sky with essentially a point-and-shoot approach.

According to a report by Engadget, the Riken team claims they could blast 3,000 tons of debris with their proposed laser system. The team's plan consists of first adapting the Extreme Universe Space Observatory's infrared telescope to track down debris that is orbiting Earth at high speeds. Next, they would use a fiber optic CAN laser the type that has been used in particle accelerators to shoot a powerful beam at the space junk in order to degrade the orbit of the trash item. The space junk would then fall from orbit and burn up upon reentry into Earth's atmosphere. The team believes their proposed method would be able to shoot down pieces of space debris as small as one centimeter across.

The next step for the Riken team's vision is to conduct a proof of concept experiment on a smaller scale. The team proposes mounting a 20 cm telescope and a 100 strand laser on the ISS to test the idea's effectiveness at shooting down space debris. "If that goes well," Toshikazu Ebisuzaki of Riken said, "we plan to install a full-scale version on the ISS, incorporating a three-meter telescope and a laser with 10,000 fibers, giving it the ability to deorbit debris with a range of approximately 100 kilometers. Looking further to the future, we could create a free-flyer mission and put it into a polar orbit at an altitude near 800 kilometers, where the greatest concentration of debris is found."

The Riken team's plan was published in the journal Acta Astronautica.

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