Space debris remediation using space-based lasers

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Abstract

Centimetre and sub-centimetre debris fragments present a significant threat to many operational satellites in Earth orbit. When debris can be tracked, the preferred approach is collision avoidance to slightly alter the orbit of the at-risk satellite, resulting in an along-track displacement which compounds over several orbits. Although numerous strategies for active debris removal and remediation have been proposed, most such methods involve rendezvous maneuvers with targeted pieces of debris prior to some mechanical interaction. While such approaches are appropriate for removing larger objects which are potential sources of further debris, they are unsuitable for application to fragments which are too small to be accurately tracked from Earth and with which a rendezvous would be challenging. This paper investigates the use of photon pressure and ablation from space-based lasers to directly affect the orbits of small debris fragments, both to lower their orbits and lifetimes, and to reduce collision risk with operational satellites. A mission concept is studied which enables the cataloguing of debris shells of small fragments produced after breakup events, while also allowing the encountered fragments to be illuminated by a laser on board the observation satellite(s). The concept takes advantage of a laser's ability to impart momentum at a distance by employing opportunistic interaction with passing fragments, assuming no prior knowledge of their orbits and no ability to rendezvous. The impact of the mission over a 10-year operational lifetime is simulated statistically by analysing the dynamics of typical encounters and the achievable impact on fragment orbits. The effects of off-beam-axis components of the applied ΔV and its implications for beam tracking are also investigated, along with the effects of extreme laser fluence on fragment attitude.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2786-2800
Number of pages15
JournalAdvances in Space Research
Volume72
Issue number7
Early online date23 Jun 2023
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2023

Keywords

  • active debris removal
  • laser ablation
  • photon pressure
  • Earth orbit
  • space missions
  • satellite collisions

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