Ablation

From the arxiv: Momentum Transfer by Laser Ablation of Irregularly Shaped Space Debris, by Liedahl et al.

I don't have a whole lot to say about this one, but how could I ignore a paper about Giant Space Lasers? They're talking about using them to clean some of the junk out of low Earth orbit. While it would take a great deal of power to completely vaporize space junk, all you really need to do is give it enough of a shove (~100-200 m/s) that it starts to dip into the atmosphere (~200 km altitude), where it will slow down and burn up. Just how much of a shove you can get by zapping it with a laser so that some evaporates is not easy to predict, hence the paper.

The particular kind of Giant Space Laser they're talking about is left to some degree unspecified, but it's clear that you want short pulses, so that you get explosive vaporization (gas flow velocity of ~1000 m/s) rather than gentle heating, and they're talking about 10 J pulses (producing 0.1-1 m/s change in velocity for a 1 g target). So it's an awful lot of short powerful pulses. They also mention, in the usual understated scientific way, the possibility of "structural modification" of the debris — that is, the possibility that the bolt or paint flake or whatever will be blown to pieces or bent out of shape by the laser (in addition to the ~10% of the mass that will be outright vaporized). They suggest laboratory experimentation, to which I say, can I help zap random pieces of junk with a high-powered laser and see what happens? Please?

(Photo to the right is of a NASA laser ranging experiment, not actually zapping space debris. Unfortunately.)

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