04 August 2016 07:15:41 IST

Laser impulses can destroy life threatening space debris

Pieces even smaller than a smartphone present a danger

Space debris from completed missions which are a serious and ongoing threat to us can be pushed into the Earth’s atmosphere by laser impulses — causing it to burn up, scientists suggest.

Inactive satellites, lens covers and fragments from spaceship disengagements can make our communication and navigation satellites go haywire.

Pieces even smaller than a smartphone represent danger to our ability to share information and find our way.

To counter this, Stefan Scharring, Jascha Wilken and Hans-Albert Eckel of the German Aerospace Center described a new approach in applying laser-induced damage principles where using high-energy laser pulses modify the orbit of debris and push it into the atmosphere.

“Our work constitutes the transition from laboratory experiments with idealised flat targets and optimum laser alignment towards simulations of the real world scenario with arbitrarily shaped debris and limited laser pointing accuracy,” said the authors in a paper published in the journal Optical Engineering.

While the locations of major space debris are known, fragments smaller than 10 cm are difficult to catalogue and there are 10 times more small pieces than large ones.

Because of their remarkably high speeds — up to 15 km per second — small pieces of debris pose a serious threat for space flight and the operation of satellites such as those involved in communications and navigation.

In the weightlessness of space, the authors note “a secondary effect of laser-induced damage, which is not immediately apparent in experiments on the Earth.”

When part of an object is ablated or removed using a laser beam, the recoil transfers momentum to the object.

The authors simulate powerful laser oscillations to hazardous materials with the goal of modifying the debris’ orbit so that it re-enters and is destroyed by the atmosphere. “Laser damage is usually considered to be a negative phenomenon but this paper considers a significant positive application of lase-induced damage,” noted guest editor Vitaly Gruzdev from University of Missouri.