As the world becomes plagued with consumer technology that relies on satellite communication in order to function properly, from smartphones to GPS devices to television delivery services, the number of satellites launched into orbit has risen precipitously. According to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, there were 4,635 satellites in orbit of our planet at the end of 2017, of which only about 35 percent remain functional. The rest, dead and in danger of a deteriorating orbit that will eventually see the massive metal framework plummet back to Earth, are so much space junk, and a very real danger to astronauts and cosmonauts alike.
The Express reports that the Russian space agency, in tandem with a private sector firm, is tackling the issue head on, with plans to construct a ground-based laser cannon that will be able to disintegrate space junk before it can become a threat to human populations on planet Earth, or a clogging nuisance for those intrepid souls tasked with taking to the stars on the International Space Station or beyond.
The cannon, and the technology needed to create such a tool, is being undertaken in part by engineers working for the Research-and-Production Corporation Precision Systems, itself a subsidiary of Roscosmos, the Russian state space agency. Delivering a report recently to the Russian Academy of Sciences, the company asked for legal and financial backing for research and development of the device, as well as support for experimental work to create a solid-state laser apparatus that would be able to vaporize debris in orbit via a tightly focused beam.
Other nations across the world have also been looking at methods to clear debris from our orbit. Australian scientists proposed a photon pressure laser that could exert force, nudging physical debris. This idea has been considered to be dangerous by some scientists and not as preferable as potential vaporization according to RT. Japanese scientists have attempted to remove orbital debris via the use of a tether technology launched from the ISS; however, this action also failed according to Space.
In addition to the larger satellites and other instrumental arrays in predictable orbit around our planet, NASA estimates that there are over half a million pieces of space junk floating around Earth. The size of a marble or larger, these pieces of space junk can reach speeds of up to 17,500 miles per hour and are a serious danger to existing spacecraft and satellites alike.
If successful, the existence of a ground-based laser cannon able to thin the amount of dangerous debris encircling Earth would be a massive boon not only to spacefaring scientists and their instruments, but also for commercial satellites. While prevention of earthbound debris may be of primary concern, the secondary benefits would be substantial and may benefit all nations in their quest to reach out further into the final frontier.