NASA image of space lasers

Russia’s sci-fi laser cannon is going to obliterate space junk

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Jun 19, 2018, 5:52 PM EDT (Updated)

There is way too much space junk floating dangerously close to Earth-orbiting spacecraft and satellites — think about half a million pieces of debris — so expect Russia to do something about it with a monster laser blast.

Russian space agency Roscosmos’ research and development subsidiary, Precision Instrument Systems, recently took aim at this issue by submitting a proposal to the Russian Academy of Sciences. They basically want to turn an upcoming 10-foot optical telescope into a machine of mass destruction, at least when it comes to random pieces of trash metal in space.

This kind of sounds like one really badass Transformer.

Spacecraft, launch vehicles and everything else we send out of the atmosphere often leave behind parts that are broken or no longer necessary, which qualify as space junk. NASA determined that out of these 250,000 pieces at least the size of a marble, 20,000 are softball-size or larger. That was in 2013, and we’ve sent plenty of things into low-Earth orbit since then. Not to mention that even the smallest particles can zoom around at up to 17,500 mph. What may look like an insignificant scrap of metal could mean doom for the ISS and any other spacecraft or satellites orbiting the planet.

NASA image of space junk around Earth

This is how much space junk we have to contend with. Credit: NASA

So how will this thing actually work? The telescope that is supposed to keep its eye on debris will be built at Russia’s Altay Optical-Laser Center before it is armed with an adaptive optical detection system that has a solid-state laser on board. It will then fire at space junk and vaporize it using laser ablation, the process by which a laser irradiates the surface of a metal and removes layers, breaking down chemical bonds and eventually vaporizing objects like used rocket stages.

It isn’t the first time a space agency has considered confronting the growing problem of orbital debris with lasers. Japanese researchers blew more than a few minds in 2015 when they presented a concept involving a cosmic ray-detecting space telescope that would be armed with many small lasers. Those would shoot a powerful beam meant to vaporize the surface layers of space junk. The plume of resulting vapor would propel debris downward until it finally got incinerated in Earth’s atmosphere. China proposed a similar solution earlier this year.

Like just about everything else the Russian space program does, further info about this sci-fi blaster is on lockdown. We’ll just have to wait and see the spectacle in the sky when it starts going off.