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Australian Company Develops Junk-Tracking Space Laser

This handout illustration image created by Australia's Electro Optic Systems (EOS) aerospace company shows a view of the Earth from geostationary height depicting swarms of space debris in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), 20 Jul 2010

Australian researchers say they have developed a laser tracking system that will stop chunks of space debris colliding with spacecraft and satellites in the Earth's orbit. The team at Electro Optic Systems, a company based in Canberra, claims their technology will help reduce the dangers posed by fast-moving pieces of man-made space junk that are hurtling at speeds over 35,000 kilometers per hour.

An estimated 500,000 pieces of debris litter the Earth's orbit as a result of man's exploration of space. Some satellites have been hit by fast-moving pieces of junk.

The remains of old rockets can be the size of a bus, while other fragments are simply tiny flecks of paint.

An Australian company, Electro Optic Systems, has received a $3.5 million government grant to develop the world's first automated, high-precision, laser tracking technology. It would replace existing radar networks that currently monitor that part of space.

The goal is to track small objects with great accuracy.

Dr. Craig Smith, the chief executive of Electro Optic Systems, says laser beams fired from the ground could protect astronauts and satellites by targeting space junk that travels at potentially devastating speeds.

"They are all hurtling around in space at 36,000 kilometers per hour and so even a 1mm piece of space junk can destroy or damage a satellite because it all comes from either dead satellites, satellites which have broken up, satellites which had fuel left in them and exploded," noted Smith. "It is really pollution from our own use of space. Over the last 50 years we have been a bit careless, just as we have been careless with our oceans and rivers over centuries and polluted them. Now we have done it to space as well and created our own problem because all this stuff is man-made."

The laser tracking system would work by giving space craft and satellites, which are able to be maneuvered, time to move out of the way of an incoming chunk of debris.

The Australian government said the technology was part of the country's "proud history" in space science and research.

The Canberra-based team says it has received interest from around the world. Its ultimate aim is to build a series of laser tracking stations in various countries to provide a defensive shield for activity in space.

They warn that the amount of junk in Earth's orbit is increasing and, as it does, the risks to satellites and space vehicles, also rise.

The project is part of an international consortium. Other members of the consortium include the Australian National University and other institutions in Germany and the United States.