'Laser broom' will sweep up space junk

The International Space Station is going to be equipped with a "laser broom" to help sweep away space junk in Earth's orbit.

The high-tech broom, called Project Orion, is scheduled to be tested on a space mission in 2003.

Jonathan Campbell, a scientist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, is leading the team that's developing the technology.

The team has been experimenting with megawatt laser pulses, measuring the effect they can have on different types of debris.

The laser broom would lock on a piece of debris, slow it down and deflect it from the path of the space station, possibly even knocking it out of orbit.

Earth's orbit is currently littered with thousands of pieces of debris left over from past missions or from satellites that have exploded in space. NASA scientists say that unless this junk is cleaned up, there's a 10 per cent chance one of these pieces of debris will knock a hole in the ISS in the next 10 years.

Debris that's bigger than 10 centimetres isn't a problem because technicians on the ground can spot the debris and warn the crew to take evasive action. And the ISS already has a shield to protect it from anything smaller than a centimetre wide.

Space debris between one and 10 centimetres still poses a threat, one Campbell says the laser broom would be able get rid of within two years.