Pollution is not an Earth-specific problem. For years, scientists have been sounding the alarm on the dangers of space junk — specifically, the risk of collision between the International Space Station (ISS) and debris from old satellites and other objects. Says NASA: “More than 500,000 pieces of debris, or 'space junk,' are tracked as they orbit the Earth. They all travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft.”
To cope with the problem, NASA said in 2013, astronauts in space use evasive tactics to move the ISS out of harm's way. But others have proposed more active solutions. Cooler solutions. Like using lasers to shoot the trash back towards Earth.
Last month, a group of scientists from the Japanese research institute Riken published a paper in Acta Astronautica recommending the installation of lasers on the ISS, which would be used them to shoot space debris, and push the trash back into Earth’s atmosphere.
According to Engadget, the team plans to start small, by putting a relatively small telescope-and-laser-team on the ISS. Eventually, and assuming success, the group will “install a full-scale version on the ISS, incorporating a three-meter telescope and a laser with 10,000 fibers, giving it the ability to deorbit debris with a range of approximately 100 kilometers,” lead author Toshikazu Ebisuzaki said in a statement last week. Deorbiting the debris will put it out of the path of the ISS.
This seems like it could be a great solution for astronauts, but what about us Earthlings? Raining trash doesn’t sound all that great from our end. But trash is already raining down on us from space — it’s just getting burnt up by our atmosphere before it reaches us. Space.com explains in an unrelated report:
“Bits and pieces of trash constantly fall from the sky… In the last five decades, an average of one piece of debris fell to the Earth each day. Most of the trash raining down burns up in the atmosphere before it ever reaches the surface.”
So nothing to worry about, probably.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.