Aussie Company's Space Junk Solution: Blast It With Lasers

Shooting old satellites and other orbiting debris with lasers is a topic of ongoing discussion — one even Australia's found itself involved in. But shooting doesn't necessarily mean destroying, according to one local aerospace company on the forefront of the problem.

EOS Space Systems, an Australian-based outfit developing "advanced electro-optic technologies" including telescopes, gimbals, coatings and of course, lasers for the space industry, believes the best way to tackle space junk is to just move it out of the way. An article on the ABC details why this is one of the more viable options, at least for now.

As Craig Smith, CEO of EOS Space Systems explains, blowing up or disintegrating the debris would not be practical, even if the technology was available. Even if we could power a laser to slice the stuff up, all we'd end up with is a bunch of smaller bits. Smith instead proposes moving the refuse out of the way, something that, surprisingly, can be accomplished with lasers.

The company's previous efforts have been focused on using beams to track orbiting objects, so it's well-placed to deal with the situation. In fact, NASA has already thrown its support behind EOS.

As for pushing around chunks of metal beyond the atmosphere, it's all a matter of applying just the right amount of energy, as Smith explains:

"By ramping up the power, photons in the light beam have momentum and energy and can transfer that momentum to the target ... And if we put enough of those photons on the target, we can very slightly change the velocity."

"If you allow that velocity to change over a period of perhaps 24 hours, then you can get actually a 100-metre shift in the location of an object to deflect it from colliding with another space debris object."

The power required to accomplish this feat is "way less than you would put into the lights in a football stadium", Smith says.

So, yeah, it's not quite on the level of Star Wars (or Star Trek, depending on your sci-fi poison), but it scores highly in the ingenuity stakes, that's for sure.


Image: oewf / Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


    I have to say I don't have any idea why someone doesn't just collect said space 'junk' and bring it back to earth and recycle it. I mean how much would the raw materials be worth?

      As soon as they're worth enough someone will do it.

      It's worth waaaaaay less than nothing. In fact, you would go into debt massively if you tried.
      Much of that stuff is just broken fragments, but even when it's complicated, expensive equipment made from precious materials the fact that it costs so much to get into orbit and the difficulty of matching the orbit height, trajectory, and speed of the specific piece of junk you're after just makes it all too hard, especially when there are thousands of different pieces of all shapes and sizes at different heights going in different directions and speeds- speeds that mean they would end you if you collided with them.

      Most of the junk isn't in orbits with uniform directions. Lining yourself up to collect a piece of junk travelling at 5km/s is all well and good, until you stray into the path of a rogue screw travelling at 15km/s in the opposite direction. The force due to the relative velocity difference is enough to destroy a spacecraft.

      That said, if you're interested in the idea of people who remove orbital junk to make space travel safer, check out an anime series called Planetes. It gives a fairly realistic depiction of what the job might be like, in the near future.

        Could be more like Red Dwarf's Lister, Cat, Rimmer and Kryten.

      Nek minnit, turns up at can deposit with space shuttle fuel tank asking for your 5 cents lol ^_^

      Let me put this in perspective. A piece of debris as small as a speck of paint would be travelling at such high speeds that it would kill a human if a human were in its way. Since mass is irrelevant in relation to orbital velocity ( V= root (Gx mass of earth/r) no matter the size of the object they are all travelling at high speeds. It is very impractical to spend millions of dollars in R&D to develop advanced technology to obtain these almost worthless pieces of debris ( hence they are called 'junk'). So no, someone cannot just 'go and get it and bring it back'. Try not to be so simple minded in your logic please

    Could you not use the same laser to slow the junk down enough such that its orbit decays and it falls back to earth and burns up?

    So for now its just lower case me when they can do it in uppercase...

      I'll send you an email when it gets to SHOOP DA WHOOP level.

    I read somewhere a while ago that someone was working on a trackter beam, using a hollow beam of light somehow some kind of convection in the hollow part created a small force... wished i saved the link but iam sure the current prototype would not be enough to move at least the larger stuff and whether or not it works in space I cant recall or remmember for that matter.

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