By Chris Capps
What sounds like a series of propositions for a villain from a James Bond movie may actually be the answer to one of the greatest conundrums facing the future of space travel. And now scientists are examining the possibility of several measures that could help solve one of the most pressing concerns regarding the future of all Earth's space programs. Why is NASA fielding explorations into massive space claws and lasers designed to shoot into the sky?
The answer is a surprising one - debris. Since the fall of several man made craft back to Earth, NASA has increased its attention toward the growing problem of space debris. The future of humanity has now for years taken for granted that it would eventually take off from this planet and find itself among the stars. But unlike the previous generation's space concerns, the NASA of 2012 finds itself facing a whole new plethora of problems.
The Swiss space program has designed what is being called a "space claw" which will go up into the atmosphere and begin gathering pieces of space debris with a massive robotic appendage.
The CleanSpace One will be the first such satellite to go into space to retrieve its cargo and then drag it back into the Earth's atmosphere where it will burn up. And it's only one of several ventures designed to eliminate the ever growing pollution gathering in orbit around Earth.
Claws, lasers, and rockets are generally thought to be words in the arsenal of military commanders. And with that in mind it's no surprise that a few of those hearing about the sudden interest in seek and destroy missions in space are suggesting it may have a double meaning. A laser that can fire into space and eliminate harmless debris, the logic goes, might also be used for other purposes, including the destruction of military satellites.
And a giant laser just so happens to be one of the other proposed plans being considered by NASA in its efforts to clear debris. The laser, which would fire from a ground-based installation would shoot high powered beams of light at debris as it arced through the sky around Earth. The laser would then presumably push it out further into space in much the same way JAXA's solar sailed IKAROS project.
The light radiation in the weightless vacuum of space exerts only a tiny amount of push on the object, but may overpower the tiny pull gravity has on the objects at that height and nudge it out of the way.
The technology for using lasers to push satellites was studied briefly by the Air Force before it was abandoned as an idea for a time in the late 1990's. Now NASA says it may have a reason to revisit the old idea and start firing powerful lasers into orbit. And if these projects succeed, very quickly Earth orbit may become a much safer place.