Lasers in Space

Earth's orbit is cluttered with dead satellites, discarded rocket boosters and other space junk, so methods to avoid the accumulation of this kind of debris are desperately required.

"How about using a tractor beam to simply steer future junk aside," says space-flight engineer John Sinko of Nagoya University, Japan.

Sinko's idea is based on an experimental kind of spacecraft engine called a laser thruster. Within these motors, laser pulses fired into a mass of solid propellant cause a jet of material to be released, pushing the craft within the opposite path.

He has created a series of laser thrusters that could be activated in this way. A spacecraft fitted with a laser would fire a low-power beam at a thruster fitted on another craft to attract, repel or steer it in another path. Pushing a spacecraft away is a fairly simple matter, but more complex styles utilizing mirrors are needed to use a beam to tug a single towards the laser.

Combining individuals styles could permit complete control in any direction, says Sinko. He imagines spacecraft being fitted with remotely operated thrusters before launch, so that once they reach the end of their lives it's easy to alter their orbit or even shove them into the atmosphere to burn up - even if they've lost all energy.

Sinko hopes to test a single of his tractor beams on the 10-kilogram satellite within a few many years. He is not alone in trying to develop this kind of technologies: a team on the Research Institute for Complicated Testing of Optoelectronic Devices and Techniques in Sosnovy Bor, Russia, is working on comparable ideas.

It's an interesting idea that could work in principle," says Richard Holdaway, director of space science technology at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Didcot, UK. Keeping a laser beam accurately trained on a distant motor would be a challenge, he adds, "but perhaps not an insurmountable one‚"

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