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Cleaning The Sky: A Blueprint for Sustainable Space Development

You may not be aware of this, and you certainly can't spot it just by looking up at the sky, but there's quite a lot space debris floating around out there. This debris consists of a large number of artificial objects that are continuously being abandoned in space as a result of human space activities. And sure, space is infinitely vast and all that, but the stuff doesn't simply float away and end up on one of Jupiter's moons, in fact they stay in orbit, constantly circulating the planet like makeshift satellites.

In terms of quantity, the amount of artificial objects orbiting our planet have nearly doubled in number between the years 2000 and 2014. Around 3000 tons of debris is out there, made up of vagrant satellites, entire rocket bodies and small fragments resulting from collisions between objects. Today, these objects have become a formidable hurdle in the path of human space development. Their increase in number and varying orbits have made them difficult to capture, and their growing number will only make them that much harder to monitor, rendering them a greater threat to functioning space technology such as active satellites and the International Space Station  (ISS). Because of this, the design and implementation of remediation technology has become a major priority for the preservation of human space research and development.

Addressing this issue, a team comprised of scientists from across globe has offered a blueprint  that depicts an entirely space-based solutions to the heightening problem of artificial space debris. The team's proposal has been published in the journal Acta Astronautica. Should they be successful, their venture would involve recruiting two pre-existing, major items of space technology; one of which being a very wide field-of-view telescope designed by EUSO, which would be used to detect the artificial objects in space, the next item is the recently developed, high-efficiency CAN laser, which would serve as means of tracking and removing space debris from orbit.

RIKEN's EUSO telescope was originally developed to detect UV light produced by high-energy cosmic rays that enter the Earth's atmosphere at night. However, the scientists saw its potential to be adapted and utilized to spot fast moving debris in orbit. It is the telescope's super-powerful optics and wide field of view that make it ideal for its newly proposed task. Much like its co-recruit, the CAN laser was also designed with an official purpose – powering particle accelerators, but its powerful optical fiber bundles, which work together to create strong laser pulses at great repetition rates, has rendered it the perfect candidate for artificial space debris removal.

The group intends to set an initial, small-scale proof-of-concept test on the ISS. Should that go well, then it will be all systems go from there. Their proposed technique will be able to locate and deorbit even the most destructive of space debris, which is that of around a centimeter in size. Focusing an intense beam on any piece debris will slow down its velocity immensely, causing it to re-enter the earths atmosphere. The team is confident that their technique will rid most of the dangerous debris orbiting our planet within five of implementation.

Confident and assuring, Toshikazu Ebisuzaki - who led the team's effort - had this to say about their endeavour: “Our proposal is rapidly different from the more conventional approach that is ground based, and we believe it is a more manageable approach that will be accurate, fast and cheap. We may finally have a way to stop the headache of rapidly growing space debris that endangers space activities.” 

Image: Flickr's Creative Commons

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Mvusi Ngubane

About Mvusi Ngubane

I am: A shoddy idealist or a fantasist in denial. A writer & creator of content. A storyteller, a story-seeker and, occasionally, a conveyor of obscure perspectives.

Mvusi Ngubane

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