Roscosmos- the Russian space agency has unveiled plans to build a massive laser cannon to try and burn out the mounting quantity of space junk in low-Earth orbit (LEO). The cannon will be about three metres long and burn junk in space instead of attempting to bring it down and burn it upon re-entry.
According to a report by RT, development of this tech is underway at the Research-and-Production Corporation Precision Systems- a subdivision of Roscosmos. The company has reportedly submitted a report to the Russian Academy of Sciences, seeking its support for the research and development of the lasers. They want to build and test a solid-state laser, that will be able to shoot and incinerate space junk, in space.
The design of this "cannon" is based on a telescope design that is about three metres long, notes the report. Construction of which has already started, this telescope, can be used to monitor space junk floating in space and if needed transform into a giant laser if the project gets approval, says RT.
Unlike what one would expect from a laser beam, the vaporisation of junk through a cannon like this is not instantaneous. The report mentions a process called "laser ablation" which is the gradual heating and slow evaporation of an object that is floating in LEO, between 160 to 2,000 km above Earth. There are several such objects that agencies like NASA keep track regularly.
According to one NASA report, there are over 500,000 pieces of space junk right now floating in space. Travelling at over 28,000 km per hour, even small pieces, like flecks of paint at those velocities can be highly damaging to both spacecraft and satellites. Of the 500,000 pieces of orbital debris, about 20,000 are larger than a cricket ball.
Other attempts to clean space
Russia, however, is not the only spacefaring country that is concerned about clearing junk in LEO. Earlier this year an experiment was launched to the International Space Station (ISS) that sought to test various methods to clear space junk, including harpooning it and dragging it into the Earth called RemoveDEBRIS.
China announced that it was also building a laser, one that will be in orbit and heat up one portion of the junk, nudging it towards the Earth and burning it up on re-entry. The ESA last year announced magnetic tugs to drag debris down, and even SpaceX wanted to use large nets to capture and sweep up debris in orbit.