According to NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office, there are about 23,000 debris objects larger than 10 cm orbiting our planet, 3,000 of which are non-functioning satellites.
If any of these fragments were to collide with one another, it could affect the operation of spacecraft, including the most recently launched satellites. But as it turns out, debris can easily be recycled into a cloud of harmless particles, or into plasma, at least that’s what Russian scientists say.
We are talking about laser ablation, a process that involves vaporizing material from the surface of a solid body to a gaseous or plasma state using lasers that are used to remove cancerous tumors in the human body. Scientists suggest that the same method could be used to get rid of zombie satellites, or more precisely, space debris.
It may seem that all it takes is to accurately aim earth lasers to get rid of the problem, but it’s not that simple, because inoperable satellites orbiting can carry different risks. If the laser strikes the solar panels, it will release thousands of shards of glass, forming a cloud of microscopic, dangerous debris. So scientists are experimenting with different space materials to see what kind of reaction a laser pulse causes in them.
Lasers launched from Earth are also subject to atmospheric interference, which can reduce hit accuracy, but “space lasers” are able to easily target and avoid specific objects, like solar cells.
Why is it so important to get rid of space debris? Even small amounts of it can harm satellites and the ISS station, which already has to deal with it every day. Since 1990, the ISS has performed 27 collision avoidance maneuvers with energy-intensive objects. Such a task requires a lot of fuel consumption, so the fight against space debris is also an economic factor.
Moreover, the amount of debris will only increase due to the fact that the space industry has become open to the private market. Thousands of pieces of equipment are currently put into orbit. And despite the fact that the idea of Russian scientists may solve the problem, many experts oppose it. They believe that if you can literally melt down space debris, you can just as easily get rid of competing working satellites because any active debris removal system from orbit is also an effective anti-satellite weapon.