A laser beam in outer space that sends orbiting debris to a fiery end in the Earth's atmosphere may soon be a reality.
SKY Perfect JSAT Corp. said it is developing a satellite that can shoot down space junk ranging from old, abandoned satellites to rocket parts still orbiting the Earth.
The Tokyo-based satellite broadcaster is developing the technology jointly with the Riken research institute and other parties, according to a June 11 announcement.
It said they plan to clean up the increasing amount of debris orbiting the planet by pushing it into the Earth’s atmosphere, where it will then burn up.
The team plans to start experimenting in 2024 to test the laser equipment and aims to have the satellite operational in 2026.
"Space debris poses a large-scale problem," said Tadanori Fukushima, head of the space remnant removal program. "I want to bring this socially significant project to fruition at any cost."
The tiny satellite will weigh just several hundred kilograms, according to the announcement. Its laser will be used to melt the surface of the space junk.
That will cause the debris to emit gas, creating enough force to push it out of orbit and into the atmosphere.
The low-output laser device cannot lift even a light 1-yen (1 cent) coin on Earth. But by pulsing the laser--which is how cosmetic physicians use lasers to remove unwanted skin blemishes--it can gradually set the space debris onto a path toward the atmosphere, according to project officials.
More than 100 million pieces of debris measuring 1 millimeter or larger are estimated to exist in orbit. Most of them travel at altitudes of 600 kilometers to 1,000 km, where satellites often traverse.
Despite being bite-sized, that kind of debris flies at no less than 7.5 km per second and could severely damage or knock out satellites.
Debris-clearing orbiters to catch space junk with wires or nets are also being considered. But the company said it expects the laser device will handle space junk more safely, without making direct contact with debris. Also, no fuel would be required to shoot the targets down, leading to a lower cost.