Lasers could one day be used to destroy space debris

Development depends on funding for the project.
By Laurel Kornfeld | Apr 30, 2015
Approximately 3,000 tons of space junk currently are currently in low Earth orbit, mostly in the area 500 miles (800 km) above the planet's surface.

To address the potential threat of debris impacting satellites, spacecrafts, and even the International Space Station (ISS), some NASA researchers suggest using lasers to destroy space junk.

The lasers could be fired from a position on the ISS and eventually by a satellite designed specifically for this purpose, according toToshikazu Ebisuzaki, an astrophysicist and chief scientist at the RIKEN (Rikagaku Kenky?sho) Computational Astrophysics Laboratory in Wako, Japan.

The amount of space debris is steadily increasing and consists of old satellites, rocket parts, and fragments of prior collisions. Because some of these fragments are traveling very fast, about22,370 mph (36,000 km/h), even something the size of a screw can do tremendous damage to a satellite.

Impacts by objects smaller than0.4 inches (1 centimeter) do not present a threat to the ISS, which has protective shielding.

Objects4 inches (10 cm) or larger can be easily detected from Earth before they do any damage.

The real danger comes from debris fragments between 0.4 and 4 inches (1 to 10 cm), which are too small for easy detection but can be devastating to a spacecraft or satellite.

One suggestion is using theExtreme Universe Space Observatory (EUSO), created to study cosmic rays and scheduled to arrive at Japan's section of the ISS in 2017, to locate potentially hazardous high speed space debris.

A powerful laser known as the Coherent Amplification Network (CAN), composed of many laser beams combined to form one very powerful beam, is already under development.

This laser can be blasted at the debris. It would vaporize matter on the surface of the debris and drive remaining matter down to Earth's atmosphere, where it will be destroyed.

An even larger, 100,000-watt ultraviolet CAN laser could destroy debris within a 60-mile (100 km) range.

To test the concept, the researchers plan to place a miniature EUSO and a 10-watt ultraviolet CAN laser on the ISS in either 2017 or 2018.

That assumes the laser, which has not yet been built, will be completed in two or three years.

In an even more ambitious goal, the researchers hope to one day build a satellite for the sole purpose of destroying space debris and envision it flying over Earth's poles, shooting down debris worldwide.

Using a 500,000-watt CAN laser, the satellite would start its mission 620 miles above the Earth and spiral down six miles (10 km) per month, successfully removing most debris in a period of 50 months.

 

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