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Using Lasers and Water Guns To Clean Space Debris 267

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the super-soaker-one-million dept.
WSJdpatton writes "The collision between two satellites last month has renewed interest in some ideas for cleaning up the cloud of debris circling the earth. Some of the plans being considered: Using aging rockets loaded with water to dislodge the debris from orbit so it will burn up in the atmosphere; junk-zapping lasers; and garbage-collecting rockets."
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Using Lasers and Water Guns To Clean Space Debris

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  • Water is heavy (Score:5, Insightful)

    by kcbanner (929309) * on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @10:04AM (#27150645) Homepage Journal
    Wouldn't it be extremely expensive to send large quantities of water into orbit (also, our water supply is limited we can't be throwing it into space!)?
    • Re:Water is heavy (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Spazztastic (814296) <spazztastic@ g m a il.com> on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @10:07AM (#27150683)

      Wouldn't it be extremely expensive to send large quantities of water into orbit (also, our water supply is limited we can't be throwing it into space!)?

      But it rains! The water will come right back down eventually!

      Don't question me. My logic is flawless.

    • Re:Water is heavy (Score:4, Insightful)

      by sakdoctor (1087155) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @10:12AM (#27150803) Homepage

      Fine, use a powder made from AOL trial CDs. That's a limitless resource.

    • Re:Water is heavy (Score:4, Insightful)

      by FooAtWFU (699187) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @10:45AM (#27151407) Homepage
      Our water supply is not "limited" in any meaningful sense of the word, given the state of modern technology and engineering. All that Man has wrought pales in comparison to the vastness of the oceans.

      Now, our fresh-drinkable-water supplies in places that they can be effectively used for agriculture, industry, or residential populated areas, sure, that's an entirely different story altogether.

      • Re:Water is heavy (Score:5, Interesting)

        by JumboMessiah (316083) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @11:27AM (#27152311)

        True, most only really think of oil as being the next big thing to cause mass hysteria, but few realize that potable water is a dwindling resource in certain regions. Even the giant Ogallala [waterencyclopedia.com] aquifer in the central United States is showing increased rate of depletion (not to mention pollution).

        There are a few [amazon.com] books [amazon.com] on the subject.

    • by u38cg (607297) <calum@callingthetune.co.uk> on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @10:46AM (#27151439) Homepage
      More to the point, whoever proposed this idea seems to be completely unaware of the workings of orbital mechanics. Clue: the stuff is already falling. The problem is it keeps missing.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by FatdogHaiku (978357)
      Clean, potable water is limited, we have cubic miles of stuff we can't drink or cook with... although clean sea water would be about perfectly seasoned for cooking pasta, rice, or potatoes. As for expense, it's expensive to lift anything into space, but if we don't do something soon, we are going to have to armor plate everything we send up just to get through the "shotgun zone" we are creating up there... lifting armored ships and payloads would also be expensive and would not help reduce the problem.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by thewiz (24994)

      Bah! We already send large quantities of water into orbit - astronauts! How about using the urine they produce to alter the orbits of space junk? Anyone have an idea on how to let an astronaut piss out of their spacesuit without decompressing?

    • He doesn't see any problem with creating sprays of water droplets that will freeze into clouds of bits of ice traveling at thousands of miles per hour? Granted they will sublimate over time but until that happens you have a bit of a problem.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Tubal-Cain (1289912)
        Ahhh, but how much time? The extremely low pressure would sublimate the mist rather quickly, and anything larger can be tracked for the few weeks it is up there...
    • It's cold up there and a chunk of ice colliding with a satellite will do just as much damage as a chunk of other debris.

      Why wasn't it blindingly obvious to the proposer of this scheme that you can't clear space debris by sending more up there?

      (it sounds like the sort of daft logic that unscrupulous financiers use to persuade the gullible that you can clear your debts by consolidating your loans - duh!)

    • by fahrbot-bot (874524) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @12:32PM (#27153657)

      Wouldn't it be extremely expensive to send large quantities of water into orbit...?

      The water is actually for the sharks. Space-junk shot by lasers, lasers go onto sharks, sharks go into water, water goes into space. Keep up, this isn't rocket science...

    • by cyn1c77 (928549)

      Wouldn't it be extremely expensive to send large quantities of water into orbit (also, our water supply is limited we can't be throwing it into space!)?

      That's a good point. Plus how will the water stay liquid? And what if it doesn't come out as a spray. I bet it would suck to get hit with a big frozen ice block in orbit.

      The US should fix this problem the way they fix everything else: Hire a bunch of illegal immigrants or people from a 3rd world country to go up there and pick all the junk out of orbit!

  • I hope it's done safely and wisely, but it desperately needs to be done. BTW, the image in the article looks like the kml feed from STRATCOM reported in /. back in Sept 08.

    http://science.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=08/09/05/1231228
  • Ok, jokes apart now hehe.

    Someone writes on slashdot days ago about the interesting idea of put a "shield" on space made with a plastic soft container, for example a large plastic bag. fills then with water, the water frozens and you get a good ice shield to put on path of debris. once the shield caugth the debris then can send back to Earth on a planned reentry or ejected to deep space
    • by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @10:51AM (#27151551) Homepage Journal

      Doesn't work. The impactors will just break loose pieces of the ice. There has been some thought put into using Aerogel, since it has density low enough to not explode when hit by something going very. fucking. fast.

      • by Dan Ost (415913)

        Does anyone have an idea how quickly frozen water sublimates in a vacuum?

        It's possible that any ice chunks would turn to water vapor fast enough to not pose a problem for other orbiting objects.

  • by guruevi (827432) <evi AT smokingcube DOT be> on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @10:11AM (#27150793) Homepage

    But aren't all of those 'solutions' already considered?

    Space garbage zapping: You'll end up with particles and debris that is smaller and more difficult to track. Given a speck of paint in space has the same effect as a bullet on earth I don't know if we really want that.

    Space garbage collecting: However you try to do it, your spacecraft would have to either maneuver very very well in order not to be destroyed itself (making even more debris) or have such heavy shields that would make it nigh impossible to get into space.

    Space pushing into the atmosphere: Just like garbage collecting, your spacecraft will have to be careful. On the other hand it would also be possible that with a slight miscalculation you push it into an orbit that's either much more dangerous (if it bounces instead of incinerates) or more difficult to track and clean up. Next to that some things might just give other side effects here on earth. What do you think would happen if you push an old satellite with some type of nuclear fuel into the atmosphere and it doesn't burn up completely the way you want it to and it basically becomes a dirty bomb in high orbit.

    • by smooth wombat (796938) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @10:22AM (#27150989) Homepage Journal
      What do you think would happen if you push an old satellite with some type of nuclear fuel into the atmosphere and it doesn't burn up completely the way you want it to and it basically becomes a dirty bomb in high orbit.

      ZOMG!!!! You're giving terrorists ideas!! I'm reporting you!!!
    • In the field of armchair chaos theory, I would like to propose the sudden convergence of every (co-spheroid-planar?) orbit upon on singular point. Or if you prefer the more Hollywood version, they unite to form a malevolent intelligence bent on the destruction of mankind. I think either would be pretty cool.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by doctor_nation (924358)

      Zapping: This isn't what you think. The idea is to ablate one side of the debris so it de-orbits, rather than making it into smaller pieces.

      Collecting: Probably not easy.

      Adding atmosphere: interesting point about de-orbiting bad things, but the de-orbiting is going to happen anyway if these things are in a low enough orbit to be a debris problem. Adding density to space will just accelerate the deorbit.

  • Watch Thursdays at 8 for the wacky antics and hijinks of a hilarious team of orbiting garbage collectors as they circle the planet collecting debris and aiming it at ex-Spouses, in-laws etc... back on Earth.
    • team of orbiting garbage collectors

      Damn, the recession must be hitting the rocket scientists REALLY hard for them to resort to garbage collection.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by SLot (82781)

      It will never last on Fox.

  • Water???? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Muad'Dave (255648) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @10:17AM (#27150917) Homepage

    Not only would lofting water into space be a colossal waste of energy and water, it would only exacerbate the problem!

    IMHO the only 'clean' way to deorbit debris is to add energy to the debris in the retrograde direction without using additional mass, which means photons. Laser pulses could do it either by radiation pressure directly (huge laser), or by pulses that ablate the debris slightly (creates tiny beads of additional debris).

    Electron/proton beams would work as well, as would alpha particles, but they'd pose a risk to humans in space. In fact, using charged particles might induce a charge on the debris that would then help direct the debris toward it's doom (debris vector, Earth's magnetic field, right hand rule....whatever).

    • Re:Water???? (Score:4, Informative)

      by Colonel Korn (1258968) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @10:55AM (#27151613)

      Not only would lofting water into space be a colossal waste of energy and water, it would only exacerbate the problem!

      IMHO the only 'clean' way to deorbit debris is to add energy to the debris in the retrograde direction without using additional mass, which means photons. Laser pulses could do it either by radiation pressure directly (huge laser), or by pulses that ablate the debris slightly (creates tiny beads of additional debris).

      Electron/proton beams would work as well, as would alpha particles, but they'd pose a risk to humans in space. In fact, using charged particles might induce a charge on the debris that would then help direct the debris toward it's doom (debris vector, Earth's magnetic field, right hand rule....whatever).

      You do know that electrons/protons/alpha particles have mass, right?

      • They might have mass but I think you miss the point. Debris in orbit presents a hazard to spacecraft. A small paint chip left a small crater in the windshield of the space shuttle. Debris can be as small as a paint chip but its mass is enormous compared to subatomic particles. The mass of subatomic particles is just not big enough to present a collision hazard to spacecraft. Enough of them might cause additional drag which might cause their orbits to degrade prematurely. Note: I am not talking about t

      • by Muad'Dave (255648)
        As I noted, the only MASSLESS way would be photons, which electrons, etc aren't. New paragraph, new idea. I mentioned the others since there are already great gobs of them flying around every time the sun decides to burp. They would quickly be channeled toward the poles by the Earth's magnetic field and be quickly eliminated as a hazard.
    • by oodaloop (1229816)
      Maybe we should just pick up some rocks on the Moon and fire them at the debris. We could build a base there to mine and build rocks of the appropriate size and man the launchers. Won't be easy work, living on the moon. It can be a harsh mistress.
    • by mikael (484)

      A strong enough magnetic field might be enough to warp the metal stuff into an orbit that burns up in the atmosphere. Or maybe it could be designed to collect the fragments into large blocks that could be sent down individually.

      • by Muad'Dave (255648)
        That would only work if the material were ferromagnetic, or at least highly diamagnetic or paramagnetic [ndt-ed.org] if you could generate an immense field (we're talking about yank-the-aircraft-carrier-into-orbit fields). Alas, most materials used in spacecraft are aluminum, titanium, or other non-ferromagnetic materials.
        • by Dan Ost (415913)

          Could you use an ion beam to give these materials a net charge?

          Any object with a net charge would experience drag from the Earth's magnetic field, speeding it's eventual demise in the Earth's atmosphere.

    • by PMuse (320639)

      Not only would lofting water into space be a colossal waste of energy and water, . . .

      Well, a colossal waste of energy to be sure. But, as wastes of water go, a few tens or hundreds of tonnes is, as they say, not even a drop in the bucket. That's on the order of a 50-meter swimming pool or three, or the annual water usage of a few dozen people.

  • genius at work (Score:3, Insightful)

    by thedonger (1317951) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @10:21AM (#27150979)
    [from the slideshow attached to the article]

    "The more pieces of debris up there, the more chance you'll have another collision," says space analyst Geoffrey Forden at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    Wow. Just, wow.

  • Water is heavy. It is something like $10,000 a pound to launch something into space. This is why they put all the astronauts on a diet and make them take a leak before launch.

    One cubic foot of water is around 60 lbs. The is $600,000 per cubic foot of water. Not very cost effective. And my numbers are old and off the cuff. It could be far more expensive now.

    • Re:Water.... (Score:4, Informative)

      by smooth wombat (796938) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @10:42AM (#27151359) Homepage Journal
      One cubic foot of water is around 60 lbs.

      I thought that number sounded a bit high as a gallon only weighs about 7 pounds, but sure enough, a cubic foot of water DOES weigh around 60 lbs. 62.42796 pounds [fourmilab.ch] to be exact. And a gallon is actually just over 8 pounds.
  • PlanetES (Score:5, Interesting)

    by psergiu (67614) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @10:30AM (#27151141)
    • No shit, sherlock. Thanks to someone like you in every Slashdot story about orbital debris, every single Slashdot reader knows about PlanetES. It's not insightful, it's not informative. The manga and anime series were very popular. It's mentioned in the Wikipedia articles on the relevant subjects.

      This is roughly akin to mentioning "24" in any article on Slashdot about terrorism.

  • Laser Broom (Score:3, Informative)

    by CopaceticOpus (965603) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @10:35AM (#27151229)

    A key to his plan is using existing low-power lasers in quick pulses, much like the flashbulb on a camera. The laser would only singe the surface of an object in space, but that tiny burn could still help point it downward, Dr. Campbell says. Project Orion's low-budget approach hits at a conundrum of space debris.

    To be clear, they are not talking about blowin' up space junk with lasers. The laser will instead slow down small pieces of space debris so that their orbits deteriorate. (Blowing things up is the domain of the other Project Orion [wikipedia.org].)

    This mechanism is called a laser broom, and there is a short entry [wikipedia.org] about it on Wikipedia. I can't seem to find a more detailed, technical description of how this process works.

  • by internerdj (1319281) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @10:36AM (#27151253)
    Eventually we will have that solar shield that the repair-global-warming crowd keeps raving about.
  • These are all very nice ideas, but first they'd have to develop spacesuits for the sharks.

    Which puts us one step closer to landsharks.

  • Oh wow . . . imaging having that game on-line. 1. Create a mobile base with a laser in space 2. Sell tickets on-line to shoot space debris for 5min 3. ?? 4. Profit!
  • If aerogels can be made in space (without the need for the heavy supercritical fluid needed to make it on earth or if there is some way to recycle the fluid) you could cheaply launch very large volumes of a substance that would have the ability to absorb momentum from colliding objects. This would either result in the object being embedded in the aerogel (if it was small relative to the aerogel) or the object would punch through it but still end up being decelerated (if the object was large but still small

  • Where's Roger Wilco when you need him...

    • Re:Space Quest (Score:4, Informative)

      by oneiros27 (46144) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @11:36AM (#27152515) Homepage

      Unfortunately, most of the folks on here are probably too young to get the reference [dosspot.com], so, here's some text from the original boxes:

      (Space Quest) Star date: A long, long time ago (sounds familiar, huh?) in a galaxy just around the corner... You are the janitor on the Spaceship Arcada. Your mission! To scrub dirty floors, to replace burned-out light bulbs and to clean out latrines. To boldly go where no man has swept the floor!

      (Space Quest 2) Once again, you, Roger Wilco, sanitation engineer and involuntary hero, must don your sanitary space mittens and prepare for the onslaught of evil that Vohal has prepared. A chose not for the queasy or fainthearted. And if you can stomach that... Get ready for the Granddaddy of Gross. The Emperor of Evil. The First Name in Nastiness, Sludge Vohaul himself! With nothing to protect you but your wits and your wet mop, you haven't got a chance!

      (Space Quest 4) May the farce be with you! Get ready for a trek through time with everybody's favorite intergalactic sanitation engineer and freelance here, Roger Wilco!

      (Space Quest 5) He's lean, he's mean and he's out to clean. Roger Wilcon, the universe's favorite janitor, has bamboozled his way through the StarCon Space Academy and taken command of his own starship. Granted she's only a beat-up garbage scow, but hey, it beats sleeping in the broom closet. ... It's up to Roger to save the universe from the mutant menace, hart his nemesis Captain Quirk, and woo the woman of his dreams or he'll be - Gone with the Trash!

      (Space Quest 6) In space, no one can hear you clean! Fight grime and battle evil adversaries with Roger Wilco, janitor turned space adventurer, as he joins forces with video games, TV and sci-fi movies, past and present

  • Energy (Score:2, Interesting)

    by OldFish (1229566)
    It was very costly to put all that mass up there - it should be collected and eventually recycled in orbit. Basic physics.
  • The economics of this plan are kinda awful.

    For instance, sending water into space is mighty hard on the wallet. Figure on about $8,000 per pound to send it into a retrograde orbit. And you'd need to send up, oh, let's say a trillion pounds to seed the orbits with a 0.0000001% density of ice. About 10^11 cubic kilometers, 10^26 cc's, 10^18 grams, 10^ 15 kilos, 2.2x10^15 pounds, 1.8x10^19 dollars. That's a 18 billion billion dollars.

    And using lasers is no picnic either. You'd want to deliver many kilowatts pe

  • by J05H (5625) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @11:39AM (#27152579) Homepage

    The proposed Orion space debris laser fits nicely with our recent problems of creating so much debris in LEO. It would be a single pulsed laser on an equatorial mountaintop capable of ridding LEO of hazards in 4 years.

    With the recent collisions this is becoming imperative. We need to have a clean LEO environment or we aren't going to do much in space.

    http://www.spacefuture.com/archive/orions_laser_hunting_space_debris.shtml

    http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1997SPIE.3092..728P

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laser_broom

    http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN&cpsidt=3109525

    Water makes a great shield inside a space station but is a dumb idea for "collecting" debris.

  • Do we not have a space station up there, might it not need extra parts of wires or glass or metal, could we not recycle by going to get them using a shuttle and bringing them back to the station to reuse the parts, or even have a smelt up there where we could burn up the metal to create new shapes needed for repairs...etc.

    Come on people...let's get with the program...recycling is good and will waste a lot less money creating lasers or water guns or robotic garbage collectors!!!

    I really hope NASA and the lik

  • Andy Griffith is way too old to be heading out into space again!

  • by Locke2005 (849178) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @01:40PM (#27154893)
    We spent hundreds of hours in front of the Astroids [wikipedia.org] simulator, practicing breaking rocks up into smaller rocks!

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