Can Lasers Aid Australian Scientists To Collect Space Junk?

No, this is not a new science fiction film or short story from the pen of Ray Bradbury. It is, in fact, a real project initiated by an Australian team of scientists  headed by Matthew Colless, director of Australian National University's Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics. The goal of the project is direct and very sobering; to use lasers stationed on Earth to blast and annihilate the more than 300,000 estimated pieces of debris in space that threaten to collide with and destroy at breakneck speed all the satellites currently in low orbits.

Space Debris

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The debris has formed an enormous although widely dispersed cloud around earth and is comprised of everything under the sun ranging from tiny screws to bolts to fragments from exploded rockets. Even one tiny shard can do immeasurable damage to satellites and astronauts on the International Space Station.  Australia is particularly threatened by this situation as it relies heavily on satellites to deliver needed services.

Mapping  Space Debris

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In conjunction with NASA and working at the renowned Mount Stromlo Observatory, Australian scientists will now be able to monitor and map space debris with a special telescope equipped with an infra-red laser.  The objective is to make the laser so powerful that it will have the capacity to illuminate the debris so that it burnup harmlessly as  it travels falls through the atmosphere. 

According to Heiner Klinkrad, head of the European Space Agency's Space Debris Office, the total number of junk items orbiting around the planet has tripled since 1978 when statistics were first reported.

The Kessler Syndrome


Even those much of the debris involves small pieces of junk, and orbits are more than spacious, the high level of kinetic energy makes any collision catastrophic.  The debris is the result of more than 50 years of space exploration and it travels on average at 15,600 miles per hour. Even a small object at that velocity can cripple a satellite or punch a big hole in the International Space Station.  Larger objects eventually collide, creating even more debris, which then smashes together in a perilous sequence known as the Kessler Syndrome.

Orbital debris

The above image depicts a large section of orbital debris recovered from Saudi Arabia. When two pieces of junk collide at high speeds, they crumble into even smaller pieces making them very difficult to track. The fear among the scientific community is that if nothing is done, the collisions that will incur could be catastrophic and they are possibly less than a decade away from occurrence.

The Australian government has funded more than A$20 million and private investors more than $40 million to help the team of scientists establish the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) comprised of universities, space agencies and companies including Lockheed Martin, Optus and EOS Space System Australia, with the ultimate objective utilizing astronomy techniques to develop better lasers  that can effectively track the many shards of debris and knock them out of their orbits before they smash into satellites and cause immeasurable destruction.

The Residue of Failed Launches

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According to Colles, this scientific effort will probably eventually become global in scope even though for now the focal point is Australia. He is confident that the lasers will allow for precise targeting and that there is no risk of hitting a working satellite by mistake.

This timely effort can only make one speculate as to the endless nature of anything. Like the oceans, which seem eternal and boundless in their majesty, outer space too seems a realm without end.  But everything leaves its universal footprint and years of accumulation of space debris casts a shameful shadow of human ambivalence towards sacred Mother Earth; a shadow that may if gone unchecked come back to haunt future generations.