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Will NASA Use Lasers to Blast Space Trash?

Written by on Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Space junk: we can locate it,  track it, and we can pull the larger pieces back to earth to destroy them. But what about the smaller chunks of space debris? These tiny pieces of orbital junk represent the most difficult portion of the space debris dilemma. Quite simply, these pieces are too small, too fast, and too many for us to easily collect or destroy them.

Try not to underestimate the potential threat of tiny space debris. A piece of junk the size of a baseball might seem insignificant, but when it’s orbiting earth at 17,000 mph it will have approximately the same force of a truck travelling top speed on an interstate. A collision with one of these tiny pieces of debris will utterly destroy anything it touches, creating thousands of other baseball-sized orbital bullets. We may not have space-focused environmentalists demanding that the government clean up space, but space trash is a very real and very serious problem.

NASA scientists believe that they have come up with a solution to protect US satellites from this threat: lasers.

The first idea was to equip spacecraft with high-powered lasers and blast space debris from above. Theoretically, it should create a recoil powerful enough to push the debris back down to earth, where it would burn up on reentry. This approach is a bit expensive, it limits the effective range of the lasers, and it has the rather major can you buy antibiotics uk disadvantage of terrifying people everywhere. Most nations would not be comfortable with the US sending powerful lasers into orbit over their territory.

Scientists have come up with a much more diplomatic and cheaper solution. They are considering using commercial lasers on earth to zap objects as they circle earth. Surprisingly, lasers can actually exert force on an object, a bit like wind. After focusing a laser on an object for a sufficient period of time, the debris will effectively be pushed further out into space where it will no longer be a threat to satellites.

Many scientists speculate that the operational cost of the laser would be somewhat prohibitive, so it would probably only be used to push space debris that was on a direct course for a satellite. By picking and choosing, they would be able to keep costs down while allowing all other pieces of junk to continue their gradual descent back to earth.

The potential for this type of spacecraft doesn’t end there. It is entirely possible that lasers could be used to push satellites in different directions, which would reduce the reliance on propellant.

While these lasers could theoretically be adapted into a sort of weaponized satellite-destroying laser, that is an unlikely outcome for now. Lasers directed at a satellite would have too minor of an impact to significantly affect the orbital paths of massive objects such as satellites or the International Space Station.

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