Space Station Could Get Laser Cannon to Destroy Orbital Debris

space-junk-550x366The International Space Station could one day get armed with a laser to shoot down orbiting debris, researchers say. This concept could eventually lead to a laser-firing satellite that could get rid of a large percentage of the most troublesome space junk orbiting Earth. NASA researchers suggest that nearly 3,000 tons of space debris reside in low-Earth orbit, including derelict satellites, rocket bodies and parts and tiny bits of wreckage produced by collisions involving larger objects. Impacts from pieces of junk that are only the size of screws can still inflict catastrophic damage on satellites, since these projectiles can travel at speeds on the order of 22,370 mph (36,000 km/h).

spacedebrisThe problem of space debris is growing as more satellites and spacecraft get sent into space. Most spacecraft, including the International Space Station, can withstand impacts from debris smaller than about 0.4 inches (1 centimeter) with adequate shielding. However, ground-based radar and computer models suggest that more than 700,000 pieces of debris larger than 0.4 inches now orbit Earth.

wJ8r42VNow researchers suggest the Extreme Universe Space Observatory (EUSO) telescope, scheduled to be installed on Japan’s module on the space station in 2017, could help the orbiting complex detect dangerous debris. They add that a powerful laser under development could then help shoot down this space garbage. The researchers say this system could blast debris from a range of about 60 miles (100 kilometers.

The scientists plan to deploy a small proof-of-concept version of their system at the International Space Station, and could perhaps go up in 2017 or 2018. If the proof-of-concept and full-scale versions of this system are successful, the researchers suggest developing a satellite devoted solely to blasting space debris. Most space debris is concentrated at an altitude of nearly 500 miles (800 km).

BY Charles Choi, SPACE.

May 18, 2015