Chinese researchers are considering using lasers attached to a space station to clean up millions of pieces of junk floating through space, Motherboard reports.
The European Space Agency (ESA) estimated more than 170 million pieces of scrap larger than 1 millimeter were drifting in Earth’s orbit. The trash has amassed over years of humans launching satellites, spaceships and other machines into space, where pieces of metal and plastic fall or are knocked off.
“Any of these objects can cause harm to an operational spacecraft.,” according to the ESA. “For example, a collision with a 10-cm object would entail a catastrophic fragmentation of a typical satellite, a 1-cm object would most likely disable a spacecraft and penetrate the [International Space Station] shields, and a 1-mm object could destroy sub-systems on board a spacecraft.”
NASA’s chief scientist for orbital debris has called space-scrap the “the greatest risk to space missions,” according to Motherboard.
The lasers proposed by a team of researchers led by Quan Wen of the Air Force Engineering University in Xi’an, China, would not destroy debris outright, but pulse and push it into Earth’s atmosphere where the tiny pieces of scrap would burn up.
However, a 1966 Outer Space Treaty barring countries from sending weapons into space may stop the Chinese from testing their invention. The treaty was negotiated to keep the Cold War from escalating to space-based nuclear warheads and barred “weapons of mass destruction” from being placed in orbit, on planets or stations. China joined the treaty in 1980, Phys.org reports.
“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,” U.S. General John Hyten said last year, according to Phys.org. “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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