Space Junk Laser Helps NASA Zap Intergalatic Garbage

Mar 18, 2011, 12:17

Without a recent outer space voyage to hang its hat on, NASA has a new role to play with their newest project: intergalactic garbage man.

NASA announced this week that it would launch a space junk laser to stop the growing clouds of space debris surrounding the Earth from endangering future spaceflight crews. The debris clouds will only get worse as the fragments collide and split apart so NASA has created a laser that will nudge the larger debris off collision course.

According to Wired Magazine, the U.S. military currently tracks about 20,000 pieces of junk in low-Earth orbit, most of which are discarded bits of spacecraft or debris from collisions in orbit. Too much debris, NASA believes, would make future spaceflight impossible.

'There�s not a lot of argument that this is going to screw us if we don�t do something,' said NASA engineer Creon Levit. 'Right now it�s at the tipping point � and it just keeps getting worse.'

Since the natural, environmental elements of the atmosphere pull down the lightest and fastest elements first, small fragments--like bolts or screws from satellites--can be the hardest to remove. So the space junk laser seeks to prevent the collisions that cause larger junk to become small and do some real damage.

'If one collides with a satellite or another piece of debris at the not-unreasonable relative velocity of, say 5 miles per second, it will blow it to smithereens,' Levit said.

While the laser to be used in the new system is the kind used for welding and cutting in car factories and other industrial processes, it isn't powerful enough to move the largest pieces of space junk. While there is already a system for removing this dangerous debris, the only way to really prevent disastrous consequences from space junk is to cut down on collisions.

But NASA stands by the system as a way to cost-effectively manage a problem that, if unchecked, will only get worse.

'[This system] is certainly very interesting, however, I don�t think this is a long-term solution,� space security expert Brian Weeden, a technical adviser for the Secure World Foundation who was not involved in the new study, told Wired. 'It might be useful to buy some time. But I don�t think it would replace the need to remove debris, or stop creating new junk.'

Source: Wired Magazine