Large quantities of harmful space debris are making scientists think about one day arming the International Space Station (ISS) with a powerful laser cannon capable of shooting down space junk and cleaning up outer space.
Space exploration is grand. It provides us with answers about the unseen, distant, awe-inspiring worlds that share the universe with ours. It provides us with answers about ourselves, our potential for survival off of the Earth and any potential ancient relatives we might have way, way out there. Unfortunately, it also fills the universe with junk. Dangerous junk.
While most spacecrafts can safely handle impacts from particles that are smaller than one centimeter, their shielding doesn’t faire quite as well when it comes to pieces larger than that.
Statistically speaking, we now have 60 years worth of space junk and our ground-based radar systems and computer simulations are telling scientists that there are over 700.000 particles larger than one centimeter in the Earth’s orbit. Some of them are as big as ten centimeters.
The particles that astronauts encounter are remnants of rocket bodies, old, broken satellites, or tiny pieces of wrecked spacecrafts. They’re all up there as a result of humans sending out spacecraft and satellites in a quest for answers, but now they’re turning against us and causing problems that weren’t anticipated.
They’re making it hard for explorers to conduct operations and make new discoveries since they have to focus on avoiding space debris, some of which can travel as fast as 22.370 mph.
Scientists agree that a solution has to be found, and some of them have suggest an interesting one – turning the Extreme Universe Space Observatory telescope (EUSO) into a powerful laser cannon that detects and blasts space junk into a million little pieces. They’re thinking of mounting it on the International Space Station (ISS).
EUSO was initially designed to detect cosmic rays, but now could find itself equipped with an in-development laser that would destroy space debris. The telescope is currently scheduled for installation in 2017.
Toshikazu Ebisuzaki, an astrophysicist and chief scientist at the RIKEN gave a statement saying that “We realized, that we could put it to another use. During twilight, thanks to EUSO’s wide field of view and powerful optics, we could adapt it to the new mission of detecting high-velocity debris in orbit near the ISS”.
If that goes well, Ebisuzaki and his team plan on installing a full-scale version on the ISS, incorporating a three-meter telescope and a laser with 10,000 fibers, giving it the ability to deorbit debris with a range of approximately 100 kilometers.
He admits that their proposal is a radically different one from the much more conventional approach that is ground based, but also believes that it’s a more manageable one, that will be accurate, fast, and cheap, and put an end to the rapidly growing space debris that endangers space activities.
The laser proposed for the project is called a CAN (Coherent Amplification Network) and it’s composed of many smaller lasers that put together create one powerful beam. It would theoretically be able to fire 10.000 laser pulses per second and have a range of roughly 60 miles.
Image Source: popsci.com