An armada of laser spacecraft could save the Earth from asteroid Armageddon, according to University of Strathclyde researchers.
A flotilla of spacecraft with solar powered lasers would fly in formation close to the target’s surface to ablate the asteroid. The plume of vaporised asteroid rock would generate a force which over time would push the asteroid in a direction, changing its orbit. Using a flotilla would allow for redundancy - if one spacecraft fails the mission doesn’t fail - and many smaller lasers are considered more technically feasible than one larger multi mega watt system.
Strathclyde senior lecturer and the project’s leader, Dr Massimiliano Vasile, said: ‘when the laser begins to break down the surface of the object, the plume of gas and debris impinges the spacecraft and contaminates the laser. However, our laboratory tests have proven that the level of contamination is less than expected and the laser could continue to function for longer than anticipated.’
The research was carried out in collaboration with the University of Strathclyde’s Institute of Photonics. NASA has identified only two asteroids whose orbits put them on the Torino impact scale, which ranges from zero, no possibility of an impact, to 10, when it’s a likely impact that would destroy civilisation. Both asteroids, 2007 VK184 and 2011 AG5, have a Torino rating of one. A rating of one means it is extremely unlikely the object will collide with the Earth.
While dangerous asteroid impact is unlikely the Strathclyde researchers have also identified space debris as another application for the laser flotilla. The lasers could ablate the satellites, again causing plumes of debris that would propel the defunct spacecraft on a trajectory that would deorbit them so they burn up in the atmosphere and are no longer a threat.