Closer Look: NASA Considers Lasers To Battle Space Junk

MOUNTAIN VIEW (CBS 5) – “Space junk” or debris has become an increasing threat to commercial satellites along with spacecraft and the International Space Station. Now NASA scientists may have a new option for reducing debris.

Collisions with debris, and the resulting damage, have the potential for being costly and difficult to repair.

During missions, astronauts aboard the International Space Station have had to take refuge in an escape capsule because they knew they were going to have a close encounter with space debris.

NASA scientists propose using a mid-power laser that could move the objects from their collision course. Unlike lasers that have been used in the past, this new laser would not be able to vaporize debris.

“Those lasers, when you shoot them all into space, are not capable of vaporizing or melting anything,” said scientist Creon Levit of the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View. “What they are capable of doing is giving a gentle push to space debris.”

This gentle push could move a piece of space debris about 650 feet a day, enough to avoid a collision.

Levit said 33 years ago, a NASA astronomer predicted we would be in this situation. He said most of the space junk is from earlier space launches when no one was concerned about debris control.

Levit says it is now the exact opposite.

“Nowadays when you launch something into space,” says Levit. “You have to have a debris mitigation plan.”

The proposal for the laser took two years to complete. NASA estimates the cost would be much lower than a manned mission designed to collect debris.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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  • John Cowan

    It’s ok to use this technology to play target practice with space junk, but we can’t use it to blow any incoming missiles out of the sky?

    WTG government!

    • jason

      Lasers in space are vastly different than lasers on the ground. In space you don’t have to worry about power dissipation due to diffraction caused by atmosphere. Essentially your laser beam doesn’t diminish as much as a function of distance.

      And on another note, leave it to Drudge readers to take an article about shooting laser beams in space and somehow relate it to Obama.

      • citizen

        Well, Obama did direct his NASA director to make NASA’s top priority to reach out to the Muslim world. Obama did agree with Russian demands to remove missile sheild technology from our ally, Poland, who REALLY wanted it. So, we have questions.

      • Mark Matis

        What makes you think this laser will be in space? You might want to get up off your knees and stop brewing that fresh hot black tea for a little while.

      • jschmidt

        Well both of the last 2 President really haven’t taken space exploration seriously.The space program has brought countless technology improvements, and increased our ability to explore our own planet. But Obama as I recalled killed the last vehicle we could use for manned flight. Face it the country is run by bureaucrats and not visionaries.

  • Gibbs Bentley

    How about the junk occupying Washington D.C.? How do we send the degenerate junk far from Earth so we can live an unpolluted life here? It’s the mental deficient morons that are in charge that are the problem.


  • c

    Sorry boys but changing an orbital path to save the space station will endanger other assets on other orbits. The only solution is to gather the junk and either fly it into a gas gaint, eject it from the solar system, or (my favorite) return it to earth for recycling into panels and circuitry needed for a line of sight system of MANNED posts to handle our information traffic, space-tourism industry, and intra/extra solar exploits.

    • Bill

      Sorry, C, but the nearest “gas giant” is light-years distant. We have no technology to transport space debris there. The proper solution is as the story describes – change the orbit so that the debris impacts the atmosphere and is vaporized.

      It is extremely uneconomical to return space debris for recycling; the cost of doing so would be orders of magnitude more than the value of the debris, most of which is very small with little extrinsic value.

      • Ranger1

        Sorry Bill, the nearest gas giant is Jupiter and we’ve sent several probes there.

    • Bob

      There are just so many uninformed terrible ideas in this post I don’t know where to start. You should start by not posting comments about Space and Orbital Mechanics.

    • Jason

      ..what… talking about.
      The amount of energy and effort to move debris through our solar system and navigate it to a “gas giant” would be ridiculous.
      This idea simply knocks debris out of a stable orbit, most likely causing it to enter an unstable orbit and fall to the earth (where it will be vaporized by the atmosphere) or careen far far away from earth.
      You use a laser because it’s a lot easier than poking debris with a pole. You point , aim and shoot and since your beam is moving at the speed of light – it’s much easier to hit these bits of debris that are flying at hundreds of mph.

  • end_NASA

    Do you really have to go to Caltech, Stanford or an Ivy to learn how to be this stupid? Why not stop sending the s*** up? I don’t give a s*** if some effete bureaucrat catches a piece of crumpled, tin foil while writing quips over a cigar and bordeaux, refit monthly by a cosmonaut named Tanya.

  • WeThePeople

    Bad IDEA

    In order to mitigate space junk, you have to remove it. Not make it smaller.

    This stuff is flying at over 20000 miles per hour. A nut or bolt or any fragment of junk will fly right through a space suit, or the station.
    Using the LASER to deal with space junk is like cutting a head off of the hydra. Remove one, and 7 return in it’s place.

    The only way to do this is to create a space RUMBA. A satellite that flies around the Earth. When it comes in contact with a piece of junk. all it has to do is stop it’s forward movement. The junk will then fall to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere.

    Very simple, low energy solution.

    • Bill

      @WeThePeople – The laser does not generate more space debris; these lasers lack the ability to cut/break/etc debris. You don’t need to “stop its forward movement” – doing so is impossible without a huge energy transfer (remember these items are small but moving VERY fast and kinetic energy = mass * velocity^2).

      What these lasers do is change the velocity of the debris to degrade the orbit and make it impact the atmosphere where it will vaporize. Space debris resolved.

    • Bob

      WOW Wethepeople, you make it sound so easy to “come in contact with” and “stop its forward movement”. I hope you realize that the spacecraft stopping the movement would have to derease its velocity also and would deorbit with the junk….very economical.

    • Jason

      and how do you propose that a satellite would simply catch debris moving at 20,000 mph? how much energy and fuel would it take for this satellite to constantly change direction and velocity without falling out of a stable effort?(And don’t tell me that solar panels could provide fuel. You essentially need gas jets to manuever yourself in space and a satellite has a finite amount of gas) And what would you do when a large chunk of debris hits your satellite and turns THAT into hundreds of more debris? What a horrible idea.
      NASA has it right, a satellite that sits in a lower orbit and uses a laser to knock debris out of a stable orbit and let the rest of the solar system deal with it.
      At the orbit that this debris occupy the atmosphere is so scarce that photons are enough to generate a gentle push.

  • Amayzen

    NASA’s motto: First we create the problem, then we make you pay us to fix it. Actually that’s the motto of the whole government.

  • kf

    Okay people, since the author here didn’t provide any of the science or background, here’s a fact check for future blog entries:
    Objects in near earth orbit are travelling at approximately 7,000 miles per hour.
    Objects in orbit are not all going in the same direction (multiple orbital planes) so it isn’t like you can put a “net” in one place and everything will come to you.
    Debris on orbit range from the size of paint flecks to dead satellites and expended rocket bodies. All are deadly to satellites at 7,000 miles per hour.
    In the real world, lasers don’t “blow things up” like they do in the movies. What this plan would do is heat portions of the debris to change its orbital behavior by imparting additional energy to the object (see Newton’s equal and opposite reaction law). Although if someone has a working Han Solo laser I am sure NASA could come up with great uses.
    For those talking about blowing things up on orbit, don’t forget, when you blow something up, you are turning one object into many smaller objects. Blowing debris is not an option .
    The chances of impacts occurring are small because (as Douglas Adams pointed out) “space is really big” and everything is VERY spread out up there. BUT, that being said, random chance does dictate that intersections in orbit must occur every now and then. The USAF provides space surveillance support to any satellite operator that asks for it to notify them if anything is detected on an intercept course with working satellites.

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  • Ekim Reforssadin

    listen, I don’t know about all you fancy people with your fancy ray guns and space excrement, but I want to repeat something a NASA scientist once said: “Obama is a long legged mack-daddy.” Lasers or not, this simple statement is the undeniable truth. Also, what about a catchers mitt with a laser instead of a buckle?

  • Cubanfreedomfighter41

    Well the Chinese didn’t help matters much when they intentionally exploded one of there satellites in a weapons test 3 or so years ago. I guess thats one way to compare good vs. evil. Good tries to solve problems evil creates problems. I’ll let you figure out who is who in this equation. Can’t wait to see the defenders of evil come forward and justify Chinese actions.

    • phun

      You know that the US has already destroyed 2 of their own satelites for the same reason, right?

  • Average Joe

    How do we know they wont start considering political enemys “Space Junk”…

  • jake49

    Nawww no no, ya gotta use plasma blasters. I say we send up Ahnold in a space based reality show. We can hire Virgin Galactic for the orbiting studio props and film the actual blasting of space junk. Of course there would have to be a villain and a romantic interest (perhaps Sharon Stone ” you know how I hate this e-ffin planet”). It would be great stuff. The guest stars would be paying to star in the thing

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  • kevin

    What is needed is a high tech recycle company. That goes in space and picks this stuff up brings it home and recycles it.

  • Nasa reader

    Dear kf:

    Last time I checked most space junk was in the 1250 mile range with orbital speeds of 17,000 mph to 15,000 mph. The geostationary satellites are 7000 mph, but up much higher.

    See and on this, if anyone knows, they should know.

  • deryk

    First we polute our water and land, then our imediate space, now the universe.
    When are we going to leard?

    • jack

      I leard a long time ago that we are not an imediate threat to polute our universe. You grossly exaggerate our impact on the universe.

      We are nothing but a speck on a speck on a speck relative to the size of the universe.

      Ugarte: You despise me, don’t you?
      Rick: If I gave you any thought I probably would

  • dhansel

    I was wondering how long it would take before all the junk in orbiting the earth would pose a threat. We are now at that point in time.
    The only bad thing about blowing up the space junk is creating more smaller space junk that would be harder to detect and deal with.

    The real disaster would be a piece of space junk hitting several communication satellites and most everyone can’t update their facebook account or text message anyone ! People would have to go back to the 1975 when we didn’t have any of this stuff. People would actually have to go outside and interact with their neighbors.

    • jack

      Interact with my neighbors?

      If you met my neighbors, then you’d know what a disaster really is.

  • John

    You know what this is leading up to. The ability to push space junk with a laser certainly gives you the ability to either push or destroy another country’s satellites. If you blow up all of your enemy’s space capabilities, they are blind to your capabilities.

    • James

      Destroying satellites is already very doable and has been for a long while. Plus if you take out a nations satellites they can still easily take yours out… no one wins. Cleaning up low earth orbit of space junk is a much more difficult challenge.

  • The Cryptojournalist

    Wouldn’t a giant laser just make more, smaller and tougher to get pieces of garbage?

    There’s really only one solution to this problem. Two words: Mega Maid

    • Donnie

      What’s the matter with the good old, standby American solution to our most serious issues; turn it into a political “football” and debate it vehemently for 50 or 60 years until something falls down on our heads? We happen to have someone living in the White House now who is exceptionally good at this.

  • Hank Warren

    Lasering space junk, yet another violation of our rights. Add it to the list of gov’t violations of our right:
    They violate the 1st Amendment by placing protesters in cages, banning books like “America Deceived II” and censoring the internet.
    They violate the 2nd Amendment by confiscating guns.
    They violate the 4th and 5th Amendment by molesting airline passengers.
    They violate the entire Constitution by starting undeclared wars for foreign countries.
    Impeach Obama and sweep out the Congress.
    (Last link of Banned Book):

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