China Sets Its Eyes on Creating Laser that Cleans Up Space Junk

China is supporting the development of a direct-energy platform laser that will address the growing levels of orbital debris generated from various space missions.

China Sets Its Eyes on Creating Laser that Cleans Up Space Junk
GEO Polar Images of Orbital Debris NASA Orbital Debris Program Office at JSC

China, it seems, has plans to launch (pun absolutely intended) an orbital cleanup crew in the future.

In the 21st century, we have begun to awaken to the enormous environmental impact of our the aviation industry, many of which involve the sulfur found in jet fuel vapors and engine exhaust. The space equivalent, orbital debris—also referred to as space junk—is becoming an equally troubling and perplexing issue for various space agencies. Add microplastics to the equation and you have a trickle down scenario that affects all life on our planet, from beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, to its oceans.

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A team of researchers in China is looking into ways to utilize laser technology to target the problem. The low Earth Orbit (LEO) is the most vulnerable area—and saturated with orbital debris—and given its size and travel velocity, the particles could represent a range of problems for potential threats for active satellites as well as the International Space Station. NASA has gone to considerable lengths—to its credit—to study, document and monitor the occurrence of orbital debris, there have been few proposals put forward that seem to offer a feasible or comprehensive solution.

China Sets Its Eyes on Creating Laser that Cleans Up Space Junk
View of an orbital debris hole made in the panel of the Solar Max experiment. Source: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office at JSC    

The findings from the study, titled “Impacts of orbital elements of space-based laser station on small scale space debris removal”, appeared in this month's Optik - International Journal for Light and Electron Optics journal. Quan Wen, from the Information and Navigation College at the China-based Air Force Engineering University, led the team, thanks in part to the support of the Institute of China Electronic Equipment System Engineering Company.

The study involved a round of numerical simulations to determine whether an orbital station equipped with a high-powered pulsed laser could possibly to make an impact on the orbital debris. Their theory is that if an orbiting laser were to have the same right of ascension node (RAAN) as the traveling debris, that effective removal could be achieved. The authors elaborated in the paper:

“The simulation results show that, debris removal is affected by inclination and RAAN, and laser station with the same inclination and RAAN as debris has the highest removal efficiency. It provides necessary theoretical basis for the deployment of space-based laser station and the further application of space debris removal by using space-based laser.” 

Is China’s Move to Develop a Laser Proactive or Pro-Self Interest?

Critics of China's latest efforts to develop technology to launch space junk removal efforts most often cite the incident from January 2007 in which the country's anti-satellite missile test unleashed a damaging cloud of debris. At the time, Washington-based Henry L. Stimson Center co-founder Michael Krepon commented on the lasting effects: “There’s nothing subtle about this,” he said. “They’ve created a huge debris cloud that will last a quarter century or more. It’s at a higher elevation than the test we did in 1985, and for that one the last trackable debris took 17 years to clear out.” The same debris caused damage to a Russian satellite over 6 years later in 2013.

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In other words, it remains unclear whether China is offering a viable solution that serves a greater benefit or simply clearing a path to make room for its growing military presence in space. Added to geopolitical fire is rising concern from the US military that China’s effort is a possible violation of the 1966 Outer Space Treaty, a Cold War measure in which China—along with several other countries—agreed to “not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner.”

General John Hyten, head of US Strategic Command, shared his concerns at the Reagan National Defense Forum last year: “They've been building weapons, testing weapons, building weapons to operate from the Earth in space, jamming weapons, laser weapons, and they have not kept it secret. They're building those capabilities to challenge the United States of America, to challenge our allies… We cannot allow that to happen.”

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