Chinese scientists propose a laser to destroy orbiting junk

Tyee Arey, Staffer

Space debris refers to the mass of man-made objects floating through outer space. This junk has been building up ever since humans began exploring nearby locations of interest. As of 2016, the United States Strategic Command calculated a total of 17,852 man-made objects orbiting the Earth. These objects can cause damage to satellites and spaceships, and, in high enough numbers, can cause unavoidable collisions. Fortunately, the science community has been proposing a number of solutions to this problem, including, but not limited to SpaceX’s plan to create reusable rockets, JAXA’s (a Japanese space agency) plan to create a giant magnetic net, and EPFL CleanSpace One’s robotic arm.

The Air Force Engineering University in China proposed a plan to destroy space debris with a laser. Their paper was published in an issue of Optik, the International Journal for Light and Electron Optics and was titled, the Impacts of Orbital Elements of Space-Based Laser Station on Small Scale Space Debris. The paper discusses the feasibility of sending a space laser station into space. This laser would need to be able to  zap small chunks of space debris to the point in which it would fall into the atmosphere and burn up, or push it out of orbit, reducing the threat of collision.

Unfortunately, this plan is designed to destroy small pieces of space debris, and might not be able to destroy or even push large masses of space debris. Another concern is the possibility of an aggressive country using it to destroy neutral satellites or spaceships. Militarizing space has only been seen in the movies, but with this plan, it might not be very far away. Even if the lasers aren’t powerful enough to completely destroy spacecrafts, they could have the ability to push them out of orbit, or even back down to Earth. A number of spacecrafts have fallen down to earth, including NASA’s SkyLab, Cosmos 954 and, coincidentally, China’s Tiangong 1.

The threat of space debris has still not been solved due to idle hands of the past, but it’s good to know those mass producers of the junk have begun to think of solutions to the dangerous problem that lurks in large numbers above us.