Laser Thruster 'Tractor Beams' For Space Junk

The space near Earth is full of junk - if only we had some science-fictional tractor beams to pull that stuff out of the way!

As it turns out, space-flight engineer John Sinko of Nagoya University, Japan has a suggestion based on real science. A laser thruster could be used to fire laser pulses into a mass of solid propellant attached to an offending piece of space junk. The resulting force could push the object, altering its orbit and plunging it into the Earth's atmosphere, burning it up.


(Satellite laser thruster diagram)

[Sinko] has designed a series of laser thrusters that can be activated in this way. A spacecraft fitted with a laser would fire a low-power beam at a thruster fitted on another craft to attract, repel or steer it in another direction. Pushing a spacecraft away is a relatively simple matter, but more complex designs using mirrors are needed to use a beam to tug one towards the laser (see diagram above).

Combining those designs could allow full control in any direction, says Sinko. He imagines spacecraft being fitted with remotely operated thrusters before launch, so that once they reach the end of their lives it is simple to alter their orbit or even

Science fiction writers have been trying desperately to point out this problem and provide solutions. For example, how about an interplanetary garbage scow? Take a look at the 1977 television series Quark. This comedy, created by legendary writer Buck Henry, described the activities of the United Galaxies Sanitation Patrol Cruiser.


(Richard Benjamin and the Barnstable twins)

Richard Benjamin played Adam Quark, who worked to clean up trash in space. He is ably assisted by the Bettys, played by the Doublemint twins (Cyb and Patricia Barnstable).

In his 1978 novel The Fountains of Paradise, Arthur C. Clarke uses Operation Cleanup to make sure that low earth orbit is clear of debris for the newly constructed space elevator.

Fans may also recall Planetes, an anime series published by Makoto Yakimura in Japan starting in 1999. The series follows a team of debris cleaners who clear space junk from flight paths.


Planetes cover art

Read New Scientist for more details on the laser thruster.

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