After decades of sending rockets and satellites into space, low Earth orbit has since become polluted with all manner of orbital debris. Also known as space junk, it’s believed that there are well over 170 million pieces of orbital debris circling the earth, all of which are fragments of missions onto space. Currently, space agencies across the world are keeping a watchful eye on space debris, but various countermeasures have been presented to get rid of the problem in its entirety. These have ranged from moving the debris with magnets to sweeping it away with nets. The most recent of these is a space-based laser station.
Proposed by Air Force Engineering University in Shaanxi, China, the researchers behind this study believe that clearing up the planet’s orbit lies in zapping space junk into smaller, less-dangerous pieces. According to the team members themselves, numerical simulations have yielded positive results. Through these, the researchers discovered that an orbiting laser that could match the right ascension of ascending node (RAAN) of orbital debris could remove it.
“The simulation results show that, debris removal is affected by inclination and RAAN, and laser station with the same inclination and RAAN as debris has the highest removal efficiency. It provides necessary theoretical basis for the deployment of space-based laser station and the further application of space debris removal by using space-based laser,” they wrote in their paper.
Although far from being the first laser-oriented proposal, this is said to be the most effective one yet. As part of their study, the researchers simulated a space-based laser station that zapped space junk no larger than four inches with 20 light bursts a second for two minutes. This action was intended to push orbital debris away from space infrastructure or force it to burn up in the atmosphere, both of which can prevent collisions. The simulation proved to be successful, according to Futurism.com.
The suggested laser station isn’t without its problems, however. Logistics present several big ones: who would build the laser? How will it be built? How much will it cost? How many of these laser stations will be built? More pressing and worrying is: can the orbital laser station be utilized as a weapon?
For some members of the U.S. government, that may be the case. Speaking at the Reagan National Defense Forum, Gen. John Hyten told the audience that China and Russia are currently working on weapons to target American satellites. “They’ve been building weapons, testing weapons, building weapons to operate from the earth in space, jamming weapons, laser weapons, and they have not kept it secret. They’re building those capabilities to challenge the United States of America, to challenge our allies, and to change the balance of power in the world,” said Hyten.
Still, the laser station a potential solution to a serious issue that’s only expected to grow even further. Thousands of satellites are set to launch in the coming years, only adding to the millions of space junk already floating in low Earth orbit. That isn’t even taking into account the 2009 satellite collision between the Iridium 33 and Cosmos-2251, nor the intentional destruction of the FY-1C polar orbit satellite during the 2007 Chinese anti-satellite missile test. Both events have heavily compounded the orbital debris problem, with the latter becoming known as the space mission to have created the largest, and most dangerous amount of space junk. (Related: Nearly ALL communications satellites could be obliterated in the next few years from a cascading “explosion” of space debris)
If we hope to fix all of that, then action must be taken sooner rather than later.
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