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Zap space junk with lasers, scientists say

Space junk, also known more prosaically as orbital debris, is a huge problem for space agencies after decades of launching satellites, boosters, and rockets into Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

Even small pieces of debris can pose a danger to the International Space Station and active satellites, according to a report by Universe Today. In 2007, China conducted an anti-satellite missile test that created more than 3,000 shards of fast-moving debris, which damaged a Russian satellite in 2013.

Now, Chinese scientists, led by Quan Wen, a researcher from the Information and Navigation College at China’s Air Force Engineering University, have conducted a study on the impact of a space-based laser station on small-scale space junk removal.

The study is published in the journal Optik.

Based on numerical simulations as well as estimates of the velocity and trajectories of orbital debris, the researchers found that an orbiting laser with the right RAAN — or Right Ascension of Ascending Node — as the space junk itself would be effective at removing it.

“The simulation results show that, debris removal is affected by inclination and RAAN, and laser station with the same inclination and RAAN as debris has the highest removal efficiency,” the authors write. “It provides necessary theoretical basis for the deployment of space-based laser station and the further application of space debris removal by using space-based laser.”

Since the 1980s, China has been a party to the 1966 Outer Space Treaty, by which all signatories agreed to “not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner.”

Not everyone views China’s efforts to develop a space-based laser station, however. Last March, U.S. General John Hyten suggested to CNN that these attempts might violate the treaty.

“They’ve been building weapons, testing weapons, building weapons to operate from Earth in space, jamming weapons, laser weapons, and they have not kept it secret,” Hyten said, as reported by Universe Today. “They’re building those capabilities to challenge the United States of America, to challenge our allies…We cannot allow that to happen.”

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