Zapping asteroids and space debris with a swarm of satellites firing lasers

March 28, 2012

Disasteroids 3D PC game (credit: LMNOpc)

No, it’s not a new version of the classic Asteroids video game. Engineers at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow have envisioned a swarm of small agile satellites flying in formation, firing solar-powered lasers at an asteroid.

According to Dr. Massimiliano Vasile, of Strathclyde’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, the concept is more feasible than a single large spacecraft carrying a multi-mega watt laser.

“Our system is scalable; a larger asteroid would require adding one or more spacecraft to the flotilla, and intrinsically is redundant — if one spacecraft fails the others can continue,” Vasile said.

Vasile is also investigating the use of the same concept to remove space debris. The number of objects in orbit classified as debris is ever-increasing and with no widely accepted solution for their removal. Researchers at the University of Strathclyde believe the space-borne lasers could be used to lower the original orbit of the space debris (to eventually burn up in the atmosphere) and reduce the congestion.

“The amount of debris in orbit is such that we might experience a so called Kessler syndrome,” Vasile said. “This is when the density becomes so high that collisions between objects could cause an exponentially increasing cascade of other collisions. While there is significant monitoring in place to keep track of these objects, there is no specific system in place to remove them and our research could be a possible solution.

“A major advantage of using our technique is that the laser does not have to be fired from the ground. Obviously there are severe restrictions with that process as it has to travel through the atmosphere, has a constrained range of action and can hit the debris only for short arcs.”