Friday, June 5, 2015

Clean-Up Space Junk w/ Laser Cannon?

A rearward view of the International Space Station backdropped by the limb of the Earth. In view are the station's four large, gold-coloured solar array wings, two on either side of the station, mounted to a central truss structure. Further along the truss are six large, white radiators, three next to each pair of arrays. In between the solar arrays and radiators is a cluster of pressurised modules arranged in an elongated T shape, also attached to the truss. A set of blue solar arrays are mounted to the module at the aft end of the cluster.
"International Space Station after undocking of STS-132" by NASA/Crew of STS-132 - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

By Danielle Venton

If a team of astronomers has its way, the International Space Station will be outfitted with a spiffy laser-wielding telescope. No, no, hold on—it’s not to kill aliens or rebel civilizations. It’s to clean up a huge mess.

If anything rivals the human drive for exploration, it is the apparent need to leave a spectacular plume of trash in our wake. In space, the problem is becoming acute. Decades of discarded satellites and unchecked collisions have left some 3,000 tons of debris in orbit. Mankind’s slovenly ways threaten our continued use of space-based satellites, which have become a core component of modern technological infrastructure.

Lasers could be the saviors in operation Orbital Clean House. A team of astronomers at Japan’s RIKEN, a network of basic-research laboratories, have proposed adding debris-zapping capabilities to a telescope they are already developing for the International Space Station.

If the notion of lasers in space sounds slightly terrifying, you’re not alone. “The problem with it is mostly political,” says Don Kessler, who spent more than 30 years at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “Everyone is afraid you are going to weaponize space.”

For the team at RIKEN, the proposed laser cannon is a way to not only clean up their beloved orbits but also make their telescope, the Extreme Universe Space Observatory, more practically relevant, says project scientist Marco Casolino. With its wide field of view and the ability to register even the quickest flashes of light, the scope would be well suited for spotting debris as it whizzes past the International Space Station.

Now, the RIKEN team isn’t the first to suggest lasers as debris-fighting tools: Scientists have for at least 30 years kicked around the idea of laser-vaporizing an object’s surface and knocking it into the atmosphere to burn up.

In the United States, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—which publishes Orbital Debris Quarterly News, a must read for space junk enthusiasts—proposes fighting space debris with a ground-based laser.

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Source: Wired Magazine.

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