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ANU astronomers want to fire lasers at space junk

Astronomers at the Australian National University want to fire lasers at space junk orbiting Earth in an effort to avoid scenes depicted in the Oscar-winning movie Gravity.

The astronomers will be based at the $20 million Cooperative Research Centre at Mount Stromlo.

Cooperative Research Centre chief executive Ben Green said scientists estimated more than 300,000 pieces of space junk were orbiting the Earth and they posed serious risks to satellites and space exploration.

"There is now so much debris that it is colliding with itself, making an already big problem even bigger. A catastrophic avalanche of collisions that would quickly destroy all satellites is now possible," he said.

"Our initial aim is to reduce the rate of debris proliferation due to new collisions, and then to remove debris by using ground-based lasers."

Mr Green said the ultimate goal would be to zap the debris with lasers, slowing their orbits and allowing the space junk to fall back into the atmosphere, where it would then burn up harmlessly.


Director of the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Professor Matthew Colless, said that before debris could be removed "we must find out how much space junk there is and then track it all".

"If we know where the space junk is then satellites can avoid it," he said.

"Our long-term goal is to use a high-powered laser to push the space debris gently back into the Earth’s atmosphere."

The Mount Stromlo Observatory will play a leading role in monitoring the debris and any future laser activity.

The Cooperative Research Centre has been launched by the government to foster collaboration between scientists, business and community.

The centre is partnered with Lockheed Martin, the NASA Ames Research Centre, EOS Space Systems, Japan's National Institute of Information and Communications Technology, Optus, RMIT University and the Australian National University.