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Pew pew! Scientists hatch plan to laser-blast space junk

Scientists have come up with a very video game-like way to take out orbiting space debris using ground-based lasers.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read

space debris
This NASA image is an illustration of space debris. NASA

It's a junkyard out there. Reserchers estimate that at least several hundred thousand pieces of space debris are stuck out in orbit around the planet, creating hazards for satellites and spacecraft alike. These pieces include everything from stray bolts to entire derelict satellites. If only we could blast them with lasers and take care of the problem. Oh wait, maybe we can.

The Australian government announced a $20 million Cooperative Research Centre that will investigate using lasers to locate, track, and remove space debris. The group will bring together partners from governments, academia, and aerospace industries. A total estimated investment of around $90 million is needed to bring the project to fruition. NASA's Ames Research Center and Lockheed Martin are already on board.

"Everywhere humans have been in space, we leave some trash behind," says Matthew Colless, director of the Australian National University Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Mount Stromlo. "We now want to clean up space to avoid the growing risks of collisions and to make sure we don't have the kind of event portrayed in 'Gravity.'"

The idea of employing lasers in the battle against space junk has been around for awhile, but the latest thinking advances the concept. Scientists have already floated the idea of nudging junk out of the way of satellites using lasers. The Australian team would like to eventually use lasers to slow the orbit of objects until they fall into the atmosphere and burn up. The tracking component of the project would come first, however, in an attempt to prevent collisions that only create more pieces of junk.

If the laser plan comes to fruition, manning the lasers could become one of the most sought after tech jobs in history. Perhaps the laser operators would be recruited from among expert video game players. It may be as close to a real-life Asteroids as anyone could hope for.