The amount of trash floating in space continues to increase with dead satellites and other space debris posing potential danger to satellites and other spacecraft. To combat the problem, several means of collecting orbital debris have been proposed, such as through gas clouds, sails and nets.
The problem with these approaches is that they are generally targeted to capture larger objects. Thus, concerns over smaller pieces of debris that whiz around the planet like bullets remains. Such problem, however, may be addressed with a system that could zap these bits using a laser.
A group of international scientists led by researchers from Japan's Riken research institute has proposed what can be considered one of the most ambitious plans for combating the increasing layer of orbital debris. The group suggested blasting about 3,000 tons of space junk out of orbit using a fiber optic laser, which will be mounted on the International Space Station (ISS).
The plan, which was published in the journal Acta Astronautica, involves using the infrared telescope of the Extreme Universe Space Observatory (EUSO) to track space junk that move at very high speed. The researchers likewise want to use a fiber optic CAN laser, also used to power particle accelerators, to blast the objects until their orbit degrades and they burn up during entry into the atmosphere. The researchers estimate that the system is able to catch particles as small as a centimeter in diameter.
When debris is spotted and located, the system gives instruction for the laser to focus intense pulses of light into it. The process, also called plasma ablation, would result in one side of the object heating up and turning into plasma, which would eventually create thrust and cause the debris to burn up. The researchers look forward to installing a proof of concept system on the ISS.
"Initial proof of concept stages will operate from the International Space Station (ISS) where the EUSO telescope has been designed for operation as a detector of ultra-high energy cosmic rays," the researchers wrote. "The integration of the two novel technologies aboard the ISS amounts to a novel approach as an immediate response to the serious space debris problem with the existing platform of ISS."
EUSO's Toshikazu Ebisuzaki said that his team's proposal is more manageable than the ground-based and conventional approach. He also said that it is accurate, cheap and fast and that the system could eliminate most of the centimeter-sized debris within a five-year period of operation.
Photo: Abd allah Foteih | Flickr