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WITH Earth's orbit cluttered with dead satellites, discarded rocket boosters and other space junk, ways to prevent the accumulation of such debris are desperately needed.
How about using a tractor beam to simply steer future junk aside, says space-flight engineer John Sinko of Nagoya University, Japan.
Sinko's idea is based on an experimental type of spacecraft engine called a laser thruster. Inside these motors, laser pulses fired into a mass of solid propellant cause a jet of material to be released, pushing the craft in the opposite direction.
Sinko realised that the laser did not necessarily have to be on the same craft. "These on-board motors could also be targeted remotely by lasers for tractor beaming," he says.
He has designed a series of laser thrusters that can be activated in this way. A spacecraft fitted with a laser would fire a low-power beam at a thruster fitted on another craft to attract, repel or steer it in another direction. Pushing a spacecraft away is a relatively simple matter, but more complex designs using mirrors are needed to use a beam to tug one towards the laser.
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