Space Junk | Scientists Want to Destroy Space Debris With Lasers

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  • The right lasers could melt space debris like satellites into plasma.
  • The secret is to focus on space debris that we cannot reduce to anything. Otherwise, blasting the wrong parts can create small clouds of debris.
  • Just one problem: having a laser to remove space debris also means having a laser that can destroy active satellites.

    There are about According to NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office (ODPO), 23,000 space debris larger than four inches orbiting the earth, including about 3,000 defunct satellites. If one of these pieces of space debris collides, the collisions can result in large swaths of debris that could hamper many space activities, including the use of satellites, for generations.

    But standard cancer treatment could turn those pesky space debris into harmless clouds of particles called plasma, Russian scientists say. Laser ablation – the removal of materials from a solid surface by exposure to a laser beam – can destroy malignant tumors in the human body. It could also wipe out dead satellites.

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    It seems like we can just point lasers from the ground into space for useless zapping Satellites, but all satellite parts are different and carry different risks. The solar cells that satellites use to provide power, for example, could be potentially dangerous. When a laser pings the surface of a solar field, it can eject thousands of shards of glass and create a cloud of microscopic debris.

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    However, a space-based laser could bypass some of these risks, researchers at Bauman Moscow State Technical University say in a new study in Acta Astronautica. The team has experimented with various spacecraft materials to see how each reacts to laser pulse emissions known as irradiation.

    Lasers originating from Earth are subject to atmospheric interference, which can reduce the point accuracy of the beam, the scientists say. However, space-based lasers could target satellites more precisely while avoiding solar arrays. You would also need less energy.

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    Even better, this process would melt the space debris particles into harmless plasma and reduce the amount of space debris by volume without adding roaming clouds of much smaller space debris in its place.

    Why do we hate space debris so much? Keep this in mind: So many objects in space are extremely fragile that impacting a tiny piece of debris can penetrate the sides of working satellites or even cause explosions. Not only does this damage the satellites, it also sprays a lot of micro-space debris into orbit.

    The International Space Station (ISS) has to avoid this unpredictable waste every six months. According to Orbital Debris Quarterly News, a publication by NASA’s ODPO, the ISS has performed at least 27 collision avoidance maneuvers since 1999. Since it takes precious – and expensive – fuel to start the eight engines on the cargo ship Progress connected to the ISS to complete a maneuver, there is a financial incentive to clean up space debris as well.

    “If you can remove a piece of junk from orbit, you can remove a working satellite.”

    While Russian scientists’ new process of zapping space junk sounds promising, not all experts believe it is necessary.

    “There are definitely things that have cultural value and of course I don’t want anyone pointing lasers at them,” says Alice Gorman, Ph.D., space archaeologist and associate professor at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia.

    Although Gorman studies space debris, the term undermines the potential that the debris will one day have a purpose again. Some zombie satellites may come back online in the future, as they did in the past.

    Still, there is an even bigger threat, says Gorman: Using space lasers against evil will.

    “The problem with lasers, like many space debris removal mechanisms, is that if you can remove a working satellite from orbit, you can remove a piece of debris,” says Gorman. “Any system for actively removing debris in orbit is also effectively an anti-satellite weapon.”

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