Quirks and Quarks

Are junk clearing lasers the first step towards weaponizing space?

Scientists propose using a laser to help rid space of the many millions of pieces of harmful junk.
Artist rendition of a junk clearing space laser (Wikimedia)

Space junk

Space junk is old fragments of booster rockets or satellites that remain in orbit around the Earth. It is a huge problem because there is an increasing amount of space junk. There is an estimated 170 million pieces of space junk, some are tiny slivers or fragments, others are much larger. NASA estimates there are over 20 thousand pieces at the least the size of a softball. They travel at a speed of about 28 thousand kilometres per hour.

The problem

Most of the millions of pieces of space junk are the tiny fragments. These are biggest problem because they are the hardest to detect. The number of the smallest items is actually growing because collisions of larger items create more fragments. But even the tiniest slivers pose a threat to spacecraft, including the International Space Station because they are travelling at missile like speeds.

Artist rendition of space junk

The solution

Brandon Specktor, a senior writer with Live Science says the Chinese have come up with an idea to get rid of the small pieces of space junk. They propose to launch a satellite with a laser on it. The laser would detect debris as small as 1 to 10 centimetres, then blast it with radiation. After thousand of pulses, the junk would be pushed low enough in the atmosphere that it would burn up on its own. The simulation worked well for China, but it comes with concerns that such technology could be used for military purposes in space.