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The Internet wants a laser mounted on the space station
by Brooks Hays
Tokyo (UPI) May 19, 2015


disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only

A proposal to mount a laser on the International Space Station is finding support among Internet users. A glut of articles about the possible plan to vaporize space junk proliferated across trending news feeds on Tuesday, nearly a month after scientists at Japan's RIKEN research institute went public with the idea.

The strange (and seemingly unlikely) plan is an attempt to solve a real problem -- too much space junk. Astronomers estimate there's currently 3,000 tons of debris in low Earth orbit. The junk (mostly discontinued satellites) occupies an area of near space running from 100 to 1,250 miles above the planet's surface. Space junk collisions can spawn smaller fragments that can lead a domino effect of smash-ups.

While chunks of space trash with a diameter less than 0.4 inches are mostly harmless, anything larger can inflict damage on satellites and spacecraft like ISS. Scientists believe there are some 700,000 pieces of debris big enough to do damage. Scientists say a laser could be used to protect the space station from hard-to-detect debris.

Astronauts can watch for larger pieces of space junk and maneuver the space station out of harm's way. But potentially risky pieces of debris below 4 inches in diameter are difficult to spot. Researchers at RIKEN say a new telescope set to be installed on the space station's Japanese module could be of use.

"The EUSO telescope, which was originally designed to detect cosmic rays, could also be put to use for this useful project," Toshikazu Ebisuzaki, an astrophysicist and chief scientist at the RIKEN, told Space.com.

Once spotted with the telescope, a laser could zap the surface of the debris and deflect it downward, where it would burn up in Earth's upper atmosphere. The laser could help rid the region of pieces of junk, whether they were headed for ISS or not -- acting both as defense shield and garbage disposal.

While the plan is odd, it's not entirely implausible. But it is a sensitive subject.

"The problem with it is mostly political," Don Kessler, a retired NASA scientist, told Wired. "Everyone is afraid you are going to weaponize space."

Japan actually isn't the first to proffer the idea of a laser. NASA engineers of suggested using a ground-based laser to take on the task of taking out space trash. But world powers are uneasy about pointing lasers into space. Destruction of military satellites could spark international conflict -- which is why mounting a laser to the space station could be the only viable option. Having the laser on a property shared by multiple nations could help ensure the technology was used responsibly.

Still, the idea remains mostly hypothetical.

"My biggest complaint is that nobody has tested these concepts," Kessler says. "And right now there is absolutely no money being spent by the US to do that."

With Internet users now intrigued by the idea, however, it may not be long before a crowd-funded space laser project is underway.

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