The blockbuster movie Gravity has made audiences aware of the problem of orbital space junk. What had been an abstract possibility — floating debris triggering a cataclysm that could endanger communication satellites, manned spacecraft, and the International Space Station — became real thanks to the film’s extraordinary special effects.
But even before the movie filled our heads with nightmare images of astronauts floating helplessly into the interstellar void, scientists on Earth were looking at the problem. This year, the Space Environment Management Cooperative Research Centre in Australia will begin an ambitious program of tracking an estimated 300,000 pieces of space debris, with the goal of zapping them with Earth-grounded lasers.
Using lasers to destroy a threat to the world’s collective communications network is an elegant solution. Launching missiles at space junk would only generate more detritus for astronauts and satellites to dodge. However, hitting it with lasers would cause the scrap to slow down, so gravity could pull it toward Earth and it could burn up on re-entry.
With funding from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Australian government and private investors, Australian scientists are confident they’ll soon have a solution to this threat. If only climate change could be zapped as easily as space junk.