Russian scientists are developing a gigantic space laser. Sounds like the villainous plot of a James Bond film – but it’s not.
Scientists at Precision Instrument Systems (PIS) – a subdivision of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos – reportedly plan to build a laser to destroy some of the space trash orbiting the Earth, according to the Russian state-backed news organization RT.
The laser isn’t quite a laser just yet. Right now, it’s a the beginnings of a three-meter optical telescope designed to seek out space junk. However, the PIS scientists recently submitted a proposal to the Russian Academy of Sciences to further develop the telescope into a laser cannon, RT reports. The solid-state laser would be able to shoot down space junk by vaporizing it with a beam, according to the group’s report.
Representatives from the PIS group are being a big cagey about the details. They confirmed that the report exists, but “declined to elaborate further” on a timeline of completion or any other technical details, reports Live Science.
If the project is approved, the telescope will become a junk-blasting machine. It’ll use a process known as “laser ablation” to pierce space junk with a beam of heat until it evaporates. Poof. And that’s important, because space junk is a pretty sizable problem.
As we launch satellites and other space missions, we leave a tremendous amount of garbage behind — NASA estimated some 20 thousand hunks of crap are orbiting Earth. A quick glance at a live map of all our trash satellites reveals a planet surrounded by a thick sea of garbage. While navigating that sea of trash isn’t quite as treacherous as making the Kessel Run (there, we referenced Solo. Deal with it.), it does turn space exploration into a tricky obstacle course.
Roscosmos isn’t the first group to propose clearing away the abundance of space debris. In 2015, Japanese scientists suggested adding a similar laser to the International Space Station, and Chinese engineers explored a space-based laser in research published earlier this year.
It bears mentioning that a laser capable of destroying discarded rockets could also damage functioning satellites, but it would be obscenely-short sighted of the Russian government to use such a weapon in a world where leaders threaten nuclear war over Twitter. It seems more likely that we’re safe from the Bond villains of the world for now.