A Japanese startup has unveiled an ambitious plan to build a powerful laser system that can vaporize pieces of dangerous space debris circling the Earth from a ground-based station. If successful, the new technology could help alleviate the growing threat that space junk poses to satellites and human spaceflight.
Startup Making Waves with Goal to “Clean Up” Earth’s Orbit
Astroscale, a Tokyo-based space debris removal company founded in 2013, revealed that they are developing a high-powered laser called ELSA-d that could eliminate centimeter-sized debris orbiting in low Earth orbit (LEO).
The startup hopes to have ELSA-d operational within the next few years at one of two candidate sites in Spain or Australia. From these locations, the laser would be able to target LEO debris directly overhead.
“We are very excited to push the envelope with ELSA-d,” said Astroscale CEO Nobu Okada. “Space debris is a critical issue facing the satellite industry today. We believe laser technology is key to actively removing the small debris that poses the greatest threat.”
Okada said ELSA-d would build on their other work to dock spacecraft with defunct satellites and drag them out of orbit. This laser system would complement those efforts by focusing on the hard-to-capture small debris.
How Powerful Laser Plans to Blast Space Junk
ELSA-d is centered around a specialized carbon dioxide laser system that can deliver bursts of energy exceeding 20 kilowatts.
By comparison, some common industrial lasers used for cutting metal have power levels of only 2-4 kilowatts.
The laser beam would heat debris objects made of various materials like aluminum, titanium and carbon-reinforced plastic to the point where they partially or fully vaporize. This would lower the debris’ mass and cause its orbital altitude to decrease due to atmospheric drag.
Most pieces targeted by ELSA-d would fully burn up in the atmosphere within a few days to weeks after being hit by the laser.
Table 1: ELSA-d Laser System Specifications
|Max Power Output
|Targeted Debris Size
|Target Orbit Altitude
The laser itself would be housed in a dedicated facility with the beam directed vertically towards the sky through a retractable beam steering system. This setup would provide targeting over a 40° arc, enabling access to a sizable debris-rich zone.
“We utilized various innovations to make ELSA-d remarkably powerful while remaining energetically efficient,” said Chief Engineer Akinori Hosoda. “It builds on proven laser technology but with several proprietary enhancements.”
Hosoda said a pilot system would come online at the Australia or Spain site as early as 2026 to evaluate performance before expanding capabilities.
Concerns About Space Junk Reaching “Tipping Point”
While space debris has been tracked for decades, Astroscale’s proposal comes amid dire warnings from scientists that the situation in LEO has become untenable.
A 2022 report from NASA and others indicated the amount of debris has reached a “tipping point” where potential collisions could spiral out of control even without new launches. Accidental crashes exponentially increase debris, further crowding orbits used by satellites or the International Space Station.
The report warned “business as usual” projections show catastrophic scenarios possible within 10-30 years where debris cascades block access to space for generations. While debris fields would vary by orbit, popular bands at 400-650 km altitude like those targeted by ELSA-d face high risk.
“This issue represents an existential threat to the space industry,” said Dr. Moriba Jah of the University of Texas at Austin, a coauthor of the report. “Active debris removal is essential to safeguard our use of space going forward.”
Jah said emerging laser solutions look highly promising to combat debris buildup. Even removing 5-10 objects annually per laser station could curb the likelihood of debris chains.
As companies like SpaceX and Amazon launch thousands more satellites, prevention of crashes is an increasing priority.
Next Steps: Securing Investors and Conducting Field Tests
While Astroscale engineers ready ELSA-d prototypes for field testing, the startup faces challenges in securing necessary funds and regulatory approvals to operate the laser.
Early investors like Japanese automotive company ITOCHU Corporation and asset management firm Sparx Group Holdings have backed their vision. However, the laser’s estimated $92 million price tag requires attracting new partnerships and venture capital.
“It’s a complex project, but the interest so far gives us confidence we can move forward,” said Okada.
The company submitted preliminary filings to regulators in Australia and the European Union. Rules around directing lasers with classified power levels towards the sky are still developing.
Assuming approvals and financing proceed over the next year, Astroscale hopes to pick a host site and start conducting on-sky trials with a functioning pilot system around late 2025.
Hosoda said an initial series of tests lasting 6-12 months would characterize laser performance under real-world conditions across parameters like power, efficiency and targeting.
“We need to walk before we run with proving this game-changing application of laser technology,” concluded Hosoda. “But once mature, ELSA-d can play a major role in safeguarding space for future generations. We find that mission very motivating.”
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