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March 11, 2014
Researchers Want to Zap Space Junk

According to NASA, more than 500,000 pieces of debris, or “space junk,” are tracked as they orbit Earth. Made up of everything from tiny screws and bolts to large parts of rockets, they all travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph—fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft.

An Australian team working on a project to zap orbital debris with lasers from Earth says perhaps we’re only a couple of decades from a "cascade of collisions" among low-Earth-orbiting satellites.

The project is realistic and likely to be working in the next 10 years, Matthew Colless, director of Australian National University’s Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, told Reuters.

"It's important that it's possible on that scale because there's so much space junk up there," he said. "We're perhaps only a couple of decades away from a catastrophic cascade of collisions…that takes out all the satellites in low orbit."

Australia has a contract with NASA to track and map space junk with a telescope equipped with an infra-red laser at Mount Stromlo Observatory. But $20 million from the Australian government and $40 million in private investment will help the team set up as the Cooperative Research Centre to develop better lasers to track tiny pieces of debris, importing techniques from astronomy used to remove the blurring of the atmosphere.

The ultimate aim is to increase the power of the lasers to illuminate and zap pieces of junk so they burn up harmlessly as they fall through the upper atmosphere.

“There's no risk of missing and hitting a working satellite,” Colless said. “We can target them precisely. We really don't miss.”

Image courtesy of NASA.

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