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Lasers to Clean Up Space Junk

CANBERRA, Australia, April 2, 2014 — A new approach to eliminating space debris may be reminiscent of a sci-fi movie scene or video game, but it could actually prove more practical than options previously studied.

A new $20 million Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), part of an initiative established by the Australian government’s Industry Department, will help scientists use lasers to detect and track pieces of debris orbiting the Earth. The Mount Stromlo Observatory and the Australian National University’s Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics will lead the project.

An estimated 300,000 pieces of debris are in orbit, posing serious risks to satellites, space stations and other spacecraft.

An artist’s rendition of debris orbiting the Earth. Courtesy of EOS Space Systems.

“There are hundreds of thousands of pieces of space junk in orbit that are big enough to do serious damage to a satellite or space station,” said Matthew Colless, professor and director of the ANU Research School. “Everywhere humans have been in space, we leave some trash behind. We now want to clean up space to avoid the growing risks of collisions.”

The CRC plans to use ground-based lasers to “zap” debris, which includes screws, bolts and even pieces of old rockets. Doing so would slow their orbits and allow these items to fall back into the atmosphere, where scientists say they would burn up harmlessly. The so-called space junk travels mainly in low orbits around the Earth.

Orbiting debris is a growing problem, according to scientists.

“There is now so much debris that it is colliding with itself, making an already big problem even bigger,” said Dr. Ben Greene, chief executive of CRC and the CEO of EOS Space Systems. “A catastrophic avalanche of collisions that would quickly destroy all satellites is now possible.”

“Without efforts to clean up the space junk, it could eventually become impossible to send satellites into space,” Colless said.

He believes that the undertaking is realistic and likely to be working within the next 10 years.

CRC established a high-technology consortium of aerospace industry companies, universities and space agencies. It is partnering with the ANU, EOS Space Systems, Lockheed Martin, the NASA Ames Research Center, Japan’s National Institute of Information and Communications Technology, Optus and RMIT University.

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Wow. This is new? I don't think so -- you've reported on using lasers to zap space junk MANY times before on this very site and in Photonics Spectra. So why are you writing about it like this is completely new? Who would know if there is anything new here really? Thanks for putting it in context -- NOT.
4/23/2014 10:36:09 PM
- Physics Gal

Dear Physics Gal, We felt this development differed enough from previous efforts to merit coverage. We agree, though, that the story could have used more context. Below are links to two past stories we’ve written on the topic, including one describing debris-tracking efforts and another focused on preventing orbital collisions. Thanks for commenting!
5/2/2014 10:28:00 AM
- James Lowe

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