Scientists at a Japanese research institution are working on an idea that would involve
mounting a laser cannon on the International Space Station (ISS) to help the spacecraft clear its pathway in times of need. Even though it’s the most heavily shielded spacecraft ever launched, the ISS still has to
change course about once a year to avoid passing too close to large pieces of space junk.
The laser wouldn’t destroy each floating particle; instead, it would vaporize a tiny piece off its surface, creating just enough thrust to move the piece down toward the atmosphere, encouraging an eventual fiery death.
A variation of this approach uses tiny puffs of gas to nudge objects out of the way with as little as a few days’ warning.
This “just-in-time” collision avoidance could compliment active debris removal systems and be much less expensive, explained McKnight, who developed the idea.
“It’s a tradeoff between short-term risk and long-term risk,” he said.
Risk is the key term whenever you talk about dealing with tumbling space junk, he said, since every unsuccessful attempt has the potential to create even more debris particles.