Japanese startup EX-Fusion partners with EOS Space Systems to use ground-based lasers for safely slowing and removing space debris
Earth’s orbit is getting worryingly cluttered with space junk – defunct human debris like old satellites and rockets. Even tiny fragments pose collision dangers to functioning spacecraft. So companies worldwide are investigating inventive ways to safely clear the accumulating mess.
One audacious proposal comes from EX-Fusion, a Japanese startup tapping into laser technology initially meant for nuclear fusion energy. They’ve signed on with Australian contractor EOS Space Systems in an effort to essentially blast space junk out of orbit using powerful ground-based lasers.
Firing from Earth’s surface poses advantages like easy maintenance while avoiding the need to launch additional spacecraft. And EOS already operates a laser-equipped space tracking observatory near Canberra ideal for hosting EX-Fusion’s experimental system.
At first, they’ll focus on detecting and tracking smaller junk under 4 inches wide – traditionally hard to spot from the ground. Then phase two involves carefully aimed laser pulses to provide kinetic impact, slowing the debris little by little.
“The power of a laser for destroying space junk is an order of magnitude lower than for nuclear fusion, but they share technical challenges like controlling them via special mirrors,” explained EX-Fusion CEO Kazuki Matsuo.
If all goes to plan, the gradual loss of velocity will drag targeted debris deeper into Earth’s atmosphere until eventual disintegration. It’s not quite blowing objects out of the sky, but more like an orbital brake pad. Either way, scientists calculate the laser method can effectively pull space junk out of action.
Matsuo was quick to clarify these aren’t weapon-grade lasers constantly firing destructive heat, which are employed in other applications like missile defense. Instead, EX-Fusion will use specialized burst lasers that concentrate kinetic energy in pulses rather than heat.