Scientists want to blast space debris with frickin' lasers

To combat the increasingly dense layer of dead satellites and miscellaneous space debris that are enshrouding our planet, no idea -- nets, lassos, even ballistic gas clouds -- seems too far-fetched to avoid. Now, an international team of researchers led by Japan's Riken research institute has put forward what may be the most ambitious plan to date. They propose blasting an estimated 3,000 tons of space junk out of orbit with a fiber optic laser mounted on the International Space Station.

The plan is simple. The team first wants to adapt the EUSO's (Extreme Universe Space Observatory) existing infrared telescope to track chunks of space trash moving at very high speeds. Then they propose employing a fiber optic CAN laser, formerly used in powering particle accelerators, to fire upon the object until its orbit degrades and the junk burns up during reentry. The researchers estimate that the combined system could effectively hunt particles as small as a centimeter in diameter.

The Riken team recently published its initial plan in the journal Acta Astronautica. Next, they hope to install a small, proof-of-concept system aboard the ISS using a 20 cm telescope and 100 strand laser."If that goes well," Riken team leader Toshikazu Ebisuzaki said in a statement, "we plan to install a full-scale version on the ISS, incorporating a three-meter telescope and a laser with 10,000 fibers, giving it the ability to deorbit debris with a range of approximately 100 kilometers. Looking further to the future, we could create a free-flyer mission and put it into a polar orbit at an altitude near 800 kilometers, where the greatest concentration of debris is found."