Can space junk be removed using an orbiting laser?

I've heard that some people have proposed using a spacecraft with a powerful laser to remove small debris from orbit, either by vaporizing it or by shifting it into an unstable orbit where it can burn up in Earth's atmosphere. I know light places a minute amount of pressure on the objects it hits, so maybe tiny objects could be removed from orbit in this way. Has NASA or any other space agency given this idea much thought, and is this a feasible means by which space junk can be removed from orbit? Would it be possible for a spacecraft to detect tiny objects, like paint flakes, and use a laser to slow them until they fall to Earth?

I'm reposting this question, because the only people who didn't think it was possible just said "no" with no other details.

5 Answers

  • 1 decade ago
    Favorite Answer

    I don't think this is feasible for a number of reasons.

    Lasers take a lot of power. How could a really strong laser be powered on a space craft?

    The space junk people worry about is metal chunks, not paint chips. Moving the metal lumps out of their orbits will take a lot more force than moving paint chips. I don't think our current lasers are capable of this.

    Space junk moves really fast. I don't think we have the capability to target such fast moving items from a fast moving space ship. An alternative would be to match orbits with a ship - but if we could do that, then we could just pick up the junk. Plus we don't have ships that can swoop and zigzag like they do in Star Wars.

    The space shuttle is about to retire. What space ship could be used for this?

    I guess that they have thought about how to solve the space junk problem, but haven't really found an answer. Maybe lasers are even at the top of their list since you can deliver energy remotely with them. But for the forseeable future, I think this approach is out of reach.

  • 1 decade ago

    This sounds very dubious to me. As another poster has already pointed out, you would have to boil part of the spacecraft to produce any noticeable thrust. However bear in mind that most of the junk is not going to be conveniently stabilised for us to be able to hit it is a controlled manner: it will be constantly rotating meaning it is impossible to differentially heat in a controlled manner. Finally you have seeing limitations: the turbulence of the atmosphere would mean it wiuld be difficult to keep a laser beam on target anyway.

  • 1 decade ago

    A laser powerful enough to push debris around (or vaporize it) would certainly be classified as a weapon.

    There are treaties banning weapons in space, and many people would get angry if anyone put such a device into action.

  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago

    yes, its possible. If you only heat one side of an object... particularly to the point of boiling it, then you have applied "thrust" away from the source of the light... its not the "light" pressure pushing the object.. it is the violently escaping gasses produced by super heating the material. If the laser doesn't immediate "vaporize" the object, it WILL acquire velocity

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  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago


    inverse-square law alone would kill the idea. nobody is going to waste a microsecond on it.

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