MAY 08, 2015 07:40 PM PDT

Mounting A Laser On The ISS To Clean Up An Orbital Spaceage Wasteland

As you might have heard, along with the ISS and all of the satellites, there's also a bit of space junk orbiting the Earth, but did you know that there are and estimated 700,000 pieces of space junk, almost 3,000 tons of it? And that's not all. It's potentially hazardous to everybody and everything traveling into space. How is it hazardous, you may ask. Well, here's the thing: it's not just floating out there. Each of these thousands of pieces of space junk, ranging in size from discarded rocket stages and damaged satellites all the way down to tiny pieces of metal that are fractions of an inch in size, are in orbit, and are affected by the Earth's gravity. Consequently, most of them are traveling at about 22,000 miles per hour! For astronauts and those on the ground at mission control, these objects are potential bullets and missiles. But NASA researchers may have found a novel solution to these hazardous pieces of debris: they're planning on mounting a laser on the International Space Station to shoot them down.

NASA's image of the orbital debris cloud

Orbital debris is a problem and every launch adds to it with spent rocket stages, discarded fairings and satellites that eventually become derelict. Also, these large objects sometimes collide, turning two large hazards into sometimes hundreds or thousands of smaller hazards.

It's not that the ISS and other spacecraft are totally defenseless. They all have shielding installed on them that can withstand impacts from objects smaller than about 0.4 inches (1 centimeter), and ground-based observers can spot larger objects larger than 4 inches (10 cm) and help spacecraft avoid them. But there are vast numbers of medium sized objects which can't be safely absorbed by the ISS or other spacecraft, and they can't be spotted by ground control. Up until now there was no real defense against these mid-sized objects, but a new device scheduled to be installed on Japan's module of the space station in 2017 called the Extreme Universe Space Observatory (EUSO) could help the ISS sense these and dangerous pieces of debris. The other half of this defense system is powerful laser system NASA researchers are developing called the Coherent Amplification Network or CAN that could be used to de-orbit this potentially deadly detritus.



"The EUSO telescope, which was originally designed to detect cosmic rays, could also be put to use for this useful project," says Toshikazu Ebisuzaki, an astrophysicist and chief scientist at the RIKEN (Rikagaku Kenky?sho) Computational Astrophysics Laboratory in Wako, Japan.

You many be wondering, Won't the CAN laser just create more small pieces of debris? Well, actually, no it won't. Here's why: the CAN laser will actually heat and vaporize a very thin layer of material on the outside of each piece of debris. The vapor will act like a tiny booster causing each object to re-direct itself down into the Earth's atmosphere to burn up.

How could this system possibly deal with each of the hundreds of thousands of pieces of debris? Well the ISS-based system would be a proof of concept. The next stage of the project would be two satellites, one stationed at each of the Earth's poles, that could fire 10,000 pulses per second, each lasting one-tenth of one-billionth of a second. At this rate it wouldn't be long before the space surrounding the Earth started to get a lot cleaner.
About the Author
  • Andrew J. Dunlop lives and writes in a little town near Boston. He's interested in space, the Earth, and the way that humans and other species live on it.
You May Also Like
SEP 17, 2018
Space & Astronomy
SEP 17, 2018
How Common Are Planetary Collisions?
Outer space is nothing short of a galactic free-for-all. Space rocks fly in virtually every direction, sporadically impacting larger objects like moons, pl...
SEP 18, 2018
Space & Astronomy
SEP 18, 2018
Were There Originally Three Magellanic Clouds?
Astronomers recognize the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds as some of the closest galaxies to the Milky Way, but could there have been a third Magellanic...
OCT 01, 2018
Space & Astronomy
OCT 01, 2018
New Horizons Team Rehearses for Upcoming Ultima Thule Flyby
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made history when it became the first spacecraft to fly past Pluto and capture stunning images of its surface in 2015....
OCT 15, 2018
Space & Astronomy
OCT 15, 2018
Picking a Landing Site On Mars is No Easy Task
When space agencies like NASA send landers and rovers to other places in the solar system to explore, one of the most challenging questions they’re c...
OCT 22, 2018
Space & Astronomy
OCT 22, 2018
What Are Those Strange Objects Orbiting Sagittarius A*?
Sagittarius A* is a black hole that resides at the center of the Milky Way. Astronomers estimate that Sagittarius A* sports the same amount of mass as four...
NOV 04, 2018
Space & Astronomy
NOV 04, 2018
Roscosmos Discerns Cause of Faulty Soyuz Launch, Expects to Resume Launches
Just last month, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft poised to send an American astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut to the International Space Station failed mid-flig...
Loading Comments...