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The latest plan to clean up space junk? Blast it with lasers and talcum powder

There’s no disputing that Earth has a problem with space junk, whether it’s the approximately 3,000 dead satellites orbiting the planet or the thousands of smaller pieces, each of which could cause catastrophic damage to any space asset they come into contact with.

Several potential solutions have been put forward for this problem, such as an (existing) sophisticated Earth-based monitoring system that makes it easier to avoid the objects in question. An intriguing approach being explored by U.S. tech company Centauri, Photonic Associates, and other interested parties offers an alternative answer. And, if it works out as planned, it could turn out to be an absolutely essential component for future space missions.

The idea is for a “just-in-time” collision avoidance system that would help shift oncoming objects out of the way of oncoming rockets or other space objects before they cause a dangerous collision.

This could be achieved in several different ways. One would be for rockets to carry small capsules of material like talcum powder that, despite their not-exactly-fearsome reputation here on Earth, could create a cloud of particles in space to change the trajectory of incoming objects. Releasing a cloud of such particles in front of one of the pieces of debris could create associated drag, which, though small, would be enough to lower the probability of an announced collision.

Another option the researchers put forward involves a high-power orbiting pulsed laser that’s able to move objects out of the way by changing their speed slightly. Shifting an object just a few tenths of a micrometer per second could be enough to change its course with several days’ advance warning.

“It doesn’t take much energy to nudge something tens of micrometers per second,” Claude Phipps, managing partner at Photonic Associates, told Digital Trends. “You watch what you are doing so you can correct any wrong motions immediately with the next pulse. We would love to test the concept, possibly beginning with derelict French rocket bodies. Testing real debris targets is important because of their complex shapes.”

Yet another solution involves swarms of “nano-tugs” able to latch on to hazardous derelicts and modify their trajectory to prevent collisions.

It’s all still hypothetical work right now. But given the potential danger posed by orbiting space junk, it could be a smart move to at least try out these solutions in the near future.

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Acta Astronautica.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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