NASA Could Use Lasers To Remove Space Junk From Earth’s Orbit


NASA is considering using lasers and manual “space tugs” to remove space debris in Earth’s orbit, according to an agency report, as some experts estimate trillions of pieces of junk are lingering in space and endangering satellites.

Ground- and space-based lasers could be used to push space debris out of Earth’s orbit, according to NASA, though other methods include space tugs—spacecraft that can manually move objects elsewhere—and rockets.

Removing space debris is necessary because junk in Earth’s orbit poses a threat to orbiting satellites and outgoing spacecraft, NASA said, as an estimated $23 million in damage could be averted each time 100,000 pieces of small debris (measured between one and 10 centimeters) are removed.

Larger pieces of debris and the agency’s top 50 objects of concern may require the use of rockets, though this option is “one of the most complicated and the least mature.”

The report does not indicate which method is preferred, though it does specify its preference for the use of ground- or space-based lasers for smaller debris and space tugs for larger debris.

NASA suggests efforts to alleviate the issue could “achieve net benefits in under a decade” after a method is decided on—which would require cooperation with the U.S. government and military, the agency noted.

100 trillion. That’s how many pieces of space junk are estimated to be in orbit around the Earth, though the European Space Agency says only 130 million pieces are being tracked.

More than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris were generated after the Russian government tested anti-satellite missiles against one of its own satellites in 2021, which could later generate “hundreds of thousands” of pieces of smaller debris, according to the State Department.

Space debris—sometimes referred to as “space junk”—has become a growing issue for orbiting satellites as more objects are launched from Earth. Since 1957, there have been 6,370 rocket launches, which have placed more than 15,000 satellites into Earth’s orbit, according to the European Space Agency. Pieces of debris are caused by any number of causes, the agency said, including break-ups, explosions and collisions of spacecraft. Dr. Imogen Napper, a research fellow at the University of Plymouth, told Forbes last week the accumulation of space debris is similar to plastic pollution in the ocean that has accumulated over time, noting that “without a global agreement, we could find ourselves on a similar path.”

There Are Now 100 Trillion Bits Of ‘Space Junk’ Circling Our Planet—And It’s About To Get A Lot Worse (Forbes)

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