Japanese space lasers aim to clean up orbital junk

Zap it and trap it like a cosmic Marie Kondo, but will everyone approve?

A Japanese biz wants to remove debris from Earth orbit by using a satellite-mounted laser to decelerate an object such as a defunct satellite so it gradually descends towards the atmosphere and burns up.

Orbital Lasers is a startup backed by Japanese satellite operator SKY Perfect JSAT as a space debris removal service. If all goes to plan, the fledgling outfit aims to start operating sometime during 2029, .

The technology required for this service has been jointly designed and the operator and Japan's renowned Riken research institute, and is designed to operate by using laser ablation.

Orbital's satellite payload is designed to emit a laser beam that can vaporize part of the surface of the targeted space debris, and it is the impulse from the vaporized material that the company intends to use to detumble a rotating object if necessary, and then decelerate it so that it slowly sinks towards Earth and burns up.

The company claims that this is a safe method of dealing with orbital junk because it avoids any physical contact with other objects, many of which are moving at some 7.5 km per second, or about 16,777 mph. As fuel is not expended in moving the target debris either, Orbital also claims it can deliver results with lower operating costs than alternative methods.

Orbital Lasers satellite

Orbital Lasers concept (Credit: CSKY Perfect JSAT Corporation)

A previously mooted system for dealing with orbital junk proposed using a ground-based laser to apply enough energy to push a satellite or other object away from dangerous orbits.

President and CEO Tadanori Fukushima said in a statement that Orbital Lasers aims to develop a prototype to demonstrate the viability of this method for removing space debris by 2027.

The company hopes to attract interest from both domestic and foreign organizations engaged in the removal of space debris, Fukushima added.

SKY Perfect JSAT said that the issue of space debris is a growing concern for it as a satellite operator, and should be regarded as an environmental problem comparable in significance to issues such as global warming or marine plastic pollution.

It said that with the formation of Orbital Lasers, it was aiming to address this concern.

Last year, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) proposed rules for commercial space launch companies to try to limit the growth in orbital debris. It estimates that the number of orbital objects 10 cm or greater in size is estimated to be over 23,000, with half a million objects between 1 and 10 cm, and upwards of 100 million objects larger than 1 mm.

However, putting into orbit a space-borne laser powerful enough to damage other satellites might be seen as a step too far. It doesn't take much imagination to see how such a payload could be abused to attack other orbiting satellites.

Even if Orbital Lasers has no intention of allowing such a thing to happen, the mere threat could draw a pre-emptive strike. Chinese researchers have already mooted using lasers or high-power microwaves to disable potentially hostile satellites, with Starlink's growing communications constellation the envisioned target.

But this isn't the only use to which Orbital Lasers hopes to put its technology. The company aims to develop space-based Lidar (light detection and ranging) technology for satellites, and said it hopes to become the world's first commercial provider of high-precision surface data.

The intention is to use Lidar to create detailed, three-dimensional maps of parts of the Earth's surface for applications such as development planning and infrastructure design, cargo monitoring, or assessing vegetation density in areas like the Amazon.

SKY Perfect JSAT said it has signed a contract with JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, for a conceptual study of Lidar satellites and their future commercialization, with Orbital Lasers undertaking the study. ®

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