New Laser Space Debris Clearing More Subtle Than Clarke's

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

Fortunately, the old orbital forts were superbly equipped for this task. Their radars - designed to locate oncoming missiles at extreme ranges with no advance warning - could easily pinpoint the debris of the early Space Age. Then their lasers vaporized the smaller satellites, while the larger ones were nudged into higher and harmless orbits.

In a new article, Laser-based removal of irregularly shaped space debris, Stefan Scharring, Jascha Wilken, and Hans-Albert Eckel of the German Aerospace Center describe a new approach in applying laser-induced damage principles where using high-energy laser pulses modify the orbit of debris and push it into the atmosphere, causing it to burn up.

While the feasibility of laser space debris removal by high energy lasers has been shown in concept studies and laboratory proofs of principle, we address the question of the effectiveness and responsibility associated with this technique. The large variety of debris shapes poses a challenge for predicting amount and direction of the impulse imparted to the target. We present a numerical code that considers variation of fluence throughout the target surface with respect to the resulting local momentum coupling.

Simple targets as well as an example for realistic space debris are investigated with respect to momentum generation. The predictability of the imparted momentum is analyzed in a Monte Carlo study. It was found that slight variations of the initial debris position and orientation may yield large differences of the modified trajectories. We identify highly cooperative targets, e.g., spheres, as well as targets that are strongly sensitive to orientation, e.g., plates, and exhibit a poor performance in laser debris removal.

Despite limited predictability for the motion of a particular debris object, the laser-based approach appears to be suitable for space debris removal, albeit not with a deterministic but rather with a probabilistic treatment of the resulting trajectory modifications.

Engineering marches on.

Via Scoop.it.

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