NASA plans laser method for clearing space junk

Space junk is cluttering the high frontier. The growing cloud of debris in Earth orbit has been worrying space-faring nations for some time, but nothing in particular has been done to clean it up.

A team of scientists from NASA and Cornell University has proposed a laser-based method to remove objects from orbit. Instead of blasting pieces of debris (which would only create more flying junk), the group’s plan calls for using a medium-powered ground-based laser combined with a terrestrial telescope to illuminate the objects, which will slow them down and cause them to reenter the atmosphere and burn up.

The Technology Review blog noted that this process isn’t as outlandish as it seems. In fact, in the 1990’s, the Air Force studied the idea, but never acted on it. The Air Force had intended to use a powerful laser, but such a system could also be used as a weapon, which would have raised concerns from other spacefaring nations, the blog said.

The NASA/Cornell system would rely on the photons of the laser itself to decelerate an object. By illuminating a targeted piece of debris for a couple of hours per day, the researchers estimated that a 5-kilowatt laser would be sufficient for the job and that such a device could zap up to 10 objects a day.

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Reader Comments

Tue, Mar 15, 2011 RW

What are the environmental impacts (or will the resultant "ash" be so diffuse it won't matter) of basically having the atmosphere burning trash?

Tue, Mar 15, 2011

nice idea, but I bet the rest of the world will be at arms about it. How about designing into the satellites its own suicide program so if it becomes inactive or losses comms for some people it plunges itself into the atmosphere. I agree with the previous comment. every nationneeds to clean their own mess up. equal capability, controls misuse

Tue, Mar 15, 2011

"The Observer" obviously has no ability to understand Physics - 5KW is less than his/her/its home uses constantly (think about each and every lightbulb burning one KW every ten hours)... five reading lamps would use the proposed 5KW a day! Does this (censored) even understand the energy requirements of getting into LEO at all? - 'Drag junk into a higher orbit for later deconstruction: what bullshit!!! The energy required to "light a volcano" would at the very least require a thermonuclear weapon - NOT a moderate-powered laser. [Major abusive verbiage self-censored by writer] a bleeding moron!

Tue, Mar 15, 2011 The Observer

Sounds good but in reality, it would still be viewed as a possible weapon in which the beam could be directed at another country. Also, light bends over distance so one wrong calculation, and we could light a volcano somewhere. Another option could be to drag a few pieces back into orbit for disintegration during a space trip. Each country could come up with their own plan.

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