High-flying hazard: Lasers may be the answer to space junk

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If nothing else, the Sandra Bullock blockbuster “Gravity” made movie audiences aware of the very real problem of orbital space junk. What had once been an abstract possibility — floating debris triggering a cataclysmic domino effect that could endanger communication satellites, manned space craft and the International Space Station — seemed real thanks to the movie’s extraordinary special effects.

But even before the Oscar-winning film filled our heads with nightmare images of astronauts floating helplessly into the interstellar void, scientists on Earth were already looking at the problem. Later this year, the Space Environment Management Cooperative Research Centre in Canberra, Australia, will begin an ambitious program of tracking an estimated 300,000 pieces of debris with the goal of zapping them with Earth-grounded lasers.

Using lasers to destroy a threat to the world’s collective communications network is an elegant solution, given the sci-fi nature of the problem. Launching missiles at space junk would only generate more detritus for astronauts and satellites to dodge. But hitting it with lasers would cause the scrap to slow down so that gravity could pull it toward Earth so it could burn up upon re-entry.

With funding from NASA, the Australian government and private investment, Australian scientists are confident they’ll soon have a solution to this looming threat. If only the problem of climate change could be zapped as easily as space junk.

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