A Japanese startup called Astroscale has unveiled an ambitious plan to build a high-powered laser system that can vaporize dangerous space debris in orbit. The system aims to help tackle the growing problem of space junk accumulation around Earth.
The Threat of Space Junk
Over the past 60 years of space activity, satellites, rocket bodies and other debris have accumulated in Earth’s orbit, posing increasing dangers of collisions with functioning spacecraft. According to some estimates, there are currently over 128 million pieces of space junk ranging from tiny shards to defunct satellites whizzing around the planet at speeds of up to 17,500 mph.
At such velocities, even a small piece of debris can inflict catastrophic damage to satellites or spacecraft, potentially creating even more hazardous fragments. This exponentially growing cloud of lethal debris threatens crucial satellite infrastructure that the modern world depends on for services like GPS, weather forecasts, internet and other communications.
Astroscale’s Revolutionary Solution
To combat this threat, Astroscale has conceived an innovative laser technology that can safely eliminate troublesome space junk from Earth without generating extra debris.
The system called ELSA-d (End-of-Life Services by Astroscale demonstration) consists of a modular spacecraft armed with a specialized fusion-powered laser and optical systems. When targeted at debris objects, the laser can safely vaporize or alter their orbits to remove collision risks.
How ELSA-d Works
The key innovation enabling ELSA-d is its advanced nuclear fusion reactor which can generate the enormous energy levels required by the laser weapon. Conventional chemical lasers would not be powerful enough for the task.
By harnessing nuclear fusion similar to processes inside the Sun, the reactor can unleash up to 100 kilowatts of energy according to Astroscale’s plans. The laser focuses this mighty blast into a precise beam no wider than 10 centimeters by the time it reaches orbiting debris kilometers away.
Upon impact, the concentrated ray instantly heats debris material to vaporization point – effectively disintegrating objects up to 10 cm wide with each pulse. Larger junk can be pushed out of harm’s way by repeatedly applying laser pulses to gradually change its orbital velocity.
ELSA-d Space Junk Remover Specs
- Fusion laser power: Up to 100 kW
- Wavelength: 1 micron
- Beam divergence: <10 cm at 1,000 km
- Targeted debris size: 1-10 cm
- Operation range: 200-2,000 km high Earth orbits
To achieve efficient hits, ELSA-d combines its laser with advanced optical technology like adaptive optics and high precision tracking. This allows accurately targeting fast moving objects from huge distances.
The entire ELSA-d system is designed to be launched aboard a small satellite into orbits overlapping the highest-risk debris. Steerable mirrors give wide coverage for clearing space junk across expanses of space.
An innovative aspect of ELSA-d is its ability to safely neutralize space junk without generating extra hazardous fragments – a risk factor that hindered previous concepts.
By tuning the laser wavelength and pulse timings correctly, debris material can be gently heated in a controlled manner. This allows volatile substances to boil off before the structure disintegrates – preventing explosions or breakups.
Furthermore, the laser spreads its beam to evenly radiate larger objects. This heats the whole structure uniformly until it shrivels in shape or disentegrates into a dust cloud – avoiding risky shard formations.
The technology demonstrates for the first time, a safe method of removing troublesome space junk from within Earth’s atmosphere using directed energy. If proven functional, only a modest orbital fleet of ELSA-d satellites would be needed to start clearing hazardous debris and prevent further accumulation.
Testing Phase in Coming Years
While ELSA-d’s core technologies have been rigorously tested over the past few years, Astroscale aims to demonstrate the full system with orbital trials in 2025.
One demonstration will involve using the laser to manipulate a discarded object previously launched into space by Astroscale. This shows functionality for altering the orbits of existing debris.
If successful, the firm then plans to commercialize ELSA-d services – offering satellite operators and government agencies solutions to resolve space junk problems and prevent collisions.
With increasing international alarm over the space debris crisis, Astroscale has already secured partnerships with various public and private entities to develop ELSA-d. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is providing technical support on the project, matching the startup’s ¥19.4 billion raised from Japanese investors so far.
While the effectiveness of ELSA-d still remains to be proven, its development signals a major advance in capabilities to tackle space junk issues more actively.
If adoption is high, experts predict such remediation technology could help stabilize orbital debris populations within decades – even with continuing space activity. This brings hope of protecting vital satellite infrastructure essential to the functioning of our tech-dependent civilization.
More broadly, the revolutionary laser system highlights Japan’s rising role as a hub for pioneering space technology – with firms like Astroscale at the frontier of innovation. The economic potential of such leadership could be vast as global space industries accelerate in coming years.
The ELSA-d concept has already stirred ripples internationally. Astroscale envisions supplying their orbital debris removal services globally. They also seek to license aspects of their proprietary technology to other companies for a variety of space applications.
With ELSA-d’s demonstration launches nearing, the coming years will be crucial for this game changing technology to prove itself. If Japan’s audacious gamble pays off, it could carve a path to safeguarding space for future generations while cementing the nation’s expanding space capabilities.
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