Laser Cannon On ISS? Scientists Have Plan For Fighting Space Trash

The International Space Station (ISS) might be used to clear away some of the Earth’s growing orbital space debris. How can the station help? By blasting materials out of orbit with a laser cannon.

According to CBS News, around 3,000 tons of debris exist in low-Earth orbit, which has forced the ISS to duck and weave whenever it gets too close. Researchers from Japan’s RIKEN Computational Astrophysics Laboratory want to make sure the station never has to dodge again.

They want to install a 100,000-watt ultraviolet Coherent Amplification Network (CAN) laser that would vaporize the surface of debris and push it away from the station’s path and toward the atmosphere, according to Extreme Tech.

The system would be capable of sending out 10,000 pulses a second and hit a range of roughly 60 miles.

If the scientists’ dream comes true, the laser would be included on the RIKEN group’s Extreme Universe Space Observatory (EUSO), which will be attached to the Japanese module on the ISS in 2017.

Wired explains the laser would start small, like a typical presentation pointer. But after research and practice, the device would be upgraded until it is a true “laser cannon” as some people are calling it.

So, what’s stopping the scientists from arming the ISS with a space laser cannon?

NASA veteran Don Kessler explained that “the problem with it is mostly political. Everyone is afraid you are going to weaponize space.”

Still, even less hairy solutions the Earth’s growing orbital debris problem are getting little support from governments, including ground-based lasers and jumbo jets equipped with electrodynamic space tethers.

Kessler explained that years of badly-regulated satellite deployments have created a chaotic, unstable system.

“Your first clue should be when you look at a picture of our solar system. Everything is in the same plane going the same direction. You look at a picture of the satellites going around the Earth, and they’re going every which way.”

He went on to explain that eventually, we’ll need to see all the Earth’s satellites moving in the same direction, but first comes clearing out the current field of trash.

With or without a laser cannon, the ISS and the EUSO module might be an important step.

Capital Wired explained that the EUSO telescope was initially designed to detect cosmic rays, but RIKEN chief scientist Toshikazu Ebisuzaki explained it could have a second use.

“During twilight, thanks to EUSO’s wide field of view and powerful optics, we could adapt it to the new mission of detecting high-velocity debris in orbit near the ISS.”

At least the station will have a new way of detecting dangerous trash bits — anything over 0.4 inches is considered a risk to the ISS. Whether the station gets a laser weapon to fight trash will likely continue to be controversial.

[Image Credit: Air Force/Wikimedia Commons]