When I was a kid, my father had some science magazines lying around, and I used to read and re-read them, spending hours looking at the pictures, daydreaming of all the cool things that scientists and engineers were doing. One of the articles that I particularly liked was about how powerful lasers could be used to destroy space debris in orbit around Earth to reduce the risks to astronauts and their equipment, as well as to satellites. To my younger self, a kid who watched the "Star Wars" movies in a loop, this sounded like the kind of future that I saw on screen (on a blurry worn-out VHS tape) was finally becoming real!

It’s been a while, but that idea might finally happen. Some scientists want to fit a large laser to the International Space Station (ISS) to help fight the growing cloud of space debris that encircles the Earth. Their plan is to use the Extreme Universe Space Observatory (EUSO) telescope that is currently fitted to the ISS and modify it so that it can be used to spot and track space trash and shoot it with a powerful high-efficiency laser, releasing enough energy to create a plasma blast that will reduce the object’s velocity enough to make it reenter the atmosphere and burn up.

Growth of the Satellite population NASA chart

Where does all that “space junk” come from? The mess is composed mostly of old satellites, parts from rockets, discarded junk, fragments from collisions, et cetera. The total amount is estimated to be about 3,000 tons, and NASA estimates that the total number of pieces of debris in low-Earth orbit that are larger than 1 centimeter in diameter is over 300,000.

That’s a lot of bullets flying around in all directions!

space debris

The EUSO super-wide field-of-view telescope on the ISS would be combined with a high efficiency CAN laser to be able to target objects up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) away. If that proof-of-concept on the ISS works, a dedicated “garbage removal” laser could be sent up on its own at the altitude where the most space junk is found so that it can tidy things up a bit up there.

This isn’t quite what I saw in "Star Wars," but my 12-year-old self would say that space lasers are definitely a step in the right direction.

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Michael Graham Richard ( @Michael_GR ) Michael writes for MNN and TreeHugger about science, space and technology and more.