Orbital pollution might not enjoy the attention and awareness that other inevitable catastrophic disasters like climate change or asteroid impacts do, but it won’t be long before humanity will have to confront the fact that according to NASA estimates, over half a million pieces of debris are currently spinning around the Earth at speeds up to 17,500 mph. Most are smaller than a marble, but a few tens of thousands of objects are believed to be the size of a softball or larger. Given the scope of the orbital pollution problem, it’s kind of a miracle that orbital pollution has yet to cause a major catastrophe either in space or down here in gravity land. Space junk does occasionally fall to Earth unannounced, or even announced as in the case of the Chinese Tiangong-1 space station which is set to fall to Earth sometime soon wherever it happens to end up. Here’s hoping I don’t win that lottery.
Speaking of Chinese space junk, scientists at China’s Air Force Engineering University have developed a new concept they believe could help clear up the increasingly cluttered zone of space surrounding our planet. The concept involves a satellite housing an incredibly powerful laser which could autonomously detect and hone in on individual pieces of space junk, obliterating them into dust or blowing them far out of Earth’s orbit.
The technology hasn’t been tested yet, but the Chinese scientists have conducted simulations which serve as a proof of concept for their idea. According to their publication in The International Journal for Light and Electron Optics, the researchers believe their simulation “provides necessary theoretical basis for the deployment of space-based laser station and the further application of space debris removal by using space-based laser.” Hmm…space based laser you say…
While ridding the Earth of its orbital pollution problem sounds great and all, the concept isn’t without its critics. Military watchdogs have noted that China (as well as all the other superpowers) have been busy testing space weaponry designed to take out adversaries’ satellites in order to gain battlefield advantage by disrupting GPS or communications. Several satellites have also been destroyed or gone missing under mysterious circumstances lately, leading some to believe there might already be a shooting war in space. Could this “space junk laser” actually be a weapon in disguise? For that matter, what military technology isn’t a weapon in disguise?