Researchers say that the International Space Station could one day get armed with a laser to shoot down orbiting space debris.
The new concept could even one day lead to a laser-firing satellite that could destroy a large percentage of the most problem causing space junk orbiting the Earth, scientists said.
According to NASA, there is almost 3,000 tons of space debris residing in a low-Earth orbit. This includes old, derelict satellites, leftover rocket parts and bodies, and other parts and tiny bits of wreckage produced by collisions of other larger objects. Impacts from this junk can cause damage to satellites due to their speed, as most are traveling about 22,370 miles per hour.
As more and more satellites and spacecraft are sent into space, the problem of space debris is growing. Moreover, the large pieces of junk can create even more small fragments if they get hit, and those fragments then go on to hit even more objects, creating a chain reaction of space junk cluttering up the orbit around Earth.
Most spacecraft, including the International Space Station, can withstand impacts from most of the smaller junk in the neighborhood of 0.4 inches due to the shielding on the crafts. However, there are more than 700,000 pieces larger than that currently in orbit. While items larger than 4 inches are easy to spot, the ones between 0.4 inches and 4 inches in size are difficult to identify and dodge.
Researchers at the Extreme Universe Space Observatory could also be getting a powerful laser and then installed in the Japan section of the International Space Station to help shoot down the space junk.
"The EUSO telescope, which was originally designed to detect cosmic rays, could also be put to use for this useful project," study lead author Toshikazu Ebisuzaki, an astrophysicist and chief scientist at the RIKEN (Rikagaku Kenkysho) Computational Astrophysics Laboratory in Wako, Japan said.
Once the EUSO detects space junk, the Coherent Amplification Network laser would then blast the debris, burning off a thin film of matter from the surface and nudging the junk downward to burn up in Earth's atmosphere.
The full-scale version would be armed with a 100,000-watt ultraviolet CAN laser than could fire 10,000 pulses per second. Researchers believe that this could blast space junk from a range of about 60 miles.
"We may finally have a way to stop the headache of rapidly growing space debris that endangers space activities," Ebisuzaki says.
"The biggest obstacle is funding. There are some technical challenges, of course, but the main issue is getting funding for development and launch."