Star Wars junkies rejoice - it looks like we may be living on the Death Star! The latest proposal from NASA involves shooting lasers into space.
A team of researchers from NASA and Stanford University suggest that the best way to deal with the 600,000-plus pieces of space junk (or orbital debris) floating around in low-Earth orbit is to shoot them out of the sky. With lasers.
As much as this could seem a little drastic, the issue is a serious one. With so much junk already out there, and now the "runaway growth of debris" resulting from over 50 nations having launched thousands of satellites, means that a collision between two objects out there is not only likely, it is inevitable.
One collision may not seem to be such a bad thing, but one collision could be all it takes to turn a relatively well managed zero-gravity traffic flow into total chaos. This was the concern of NASA's Don Kessler back in 1978, when he proposed the Kessler Syndrome: a chain reaction of collisions that produces a multi-billion dollar demolition derby.
So coming up with an idea to remove space junk is very important. Other suggestions to date include catching it in a net, firing ion beams at it to push it out of the way, and using a remotely controlled space ship to capture it. All of these ideas are expensive, and fraught with difficulty and potential hazards. For instance, a couple of questions that come to mind for this particular ground-based laser proposal include: 1) won't each little smithereen create another piece of space junk?; and 2) what if you miss?
Here's a video created by Juan F. Castillo, Julian Duran and Joseph Duran from the University of Texas at El Paso, predicting our fate under all of this orbital debris: