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Russia wants to zap space junk with a huge frickin’ laser

Published Jun 13th, 2018 4:09PM EDT
space junk laser
Image: JPL

Space junk is a big problem. The amount of trash floating around in Earth orbit has gradually piled up over the decades and we’ve now reached a point where NASA and other space agencies around the world are forced to plan for the likelihood that anything they shoot into space might end up crashing into some random piece of litter.

NASA even went so far as to install a special sensor on the International Space Station to track the number of times it is hit by tiny bits of space junk. Now, a report from RT suggests that Russia is taking a different approach to the space junk problem, and the country is apparently planning to use a massive laser “cannon” to blast the debris away.

According to the report, Russian space agency Roscosmos is currently in the process of building the laser, which measures three meters and is based on an optical telescope. The idea here is that, once a specific piece of space debris is identified, the laser will strike the object and heat it up to a point where it is essentially vaporized.

It’s an incredibly ambitious plan, and it’s also far different than most space junk cleanup concepts we’ve seen recently. Most proposed solutions to the problem focus on pulling the larger pieces of debris down into Earth’s atmosphere where the friction of reentry would incinerate them. Tool like tethers and harpoons have already been tested with varying levels of success.

That’s not to say that a laser is a totally unheard of solution though, as China already proposed a similar system earlier this year. China’s concept included an orbiting “laser station” to zap debris as it flew by, but Russia’s seems to be a ground-based system. That’s an important point, since the idea of a giant floating laser cannon in orbit sounds the beginning of a bad sci-fi movie.

Whether Russia ends up moving forward with these plans is anyone’s guess, but if it ends up being built it could also cause more problems than it solves. If the space junk weapon doesn’t fully destroy the objects it targets, it risks turning one piece of debris into several, which will only make the problem worse.