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Australian Company Develops Space Laser

July 20, 2010

An Australian company announced on Tuesday that it has developed a laser tracking system that will stop chunks of space debris from colliding with satellites.

Electric Optic Systems said lasers fired from the ground would locate and track debris as small as four inches across.

“We can track them to very high precision so that we can predict whether there are going to be collisions with other objects or not,” Craig Smith, the company’s CEO, told AFP.

He said the technology is an improvement to existing radar systems because it could detect tiny objects that are left behind by disused rockets and satellites, which can still collide with hardware because they are still traveling at fast speeds.

Smith said there is an estimated 200,000 objects measuring less than 0.39 of an inch floating in orbit, with another 500,000 that are larger.

“It ranges from bus-size bits of rocket bodies all the way down to a little half-a-millimeter fleck of paint,” Smith said from the company’s headquarters in Canberra.

“The trouble is that they’re all traveling at about 19,000 miles an hour. So unless you’re in the same orbit you have hyper-velocity impacts, which can be devastating to a satellite.”

Electric Optic Systems said it was given $3.5 million from the Australian government to help develop the laser.

Smith said the company has received interest in the lasers from around the world.

However, he said the system works best with a network of tracking stations placed at strategic points throughout the globe.

“A network is better than a single station of your own because — particularly in lower earth orbit — things are not always coming over your head when you want them to be,” said Smith.

The laser was developed at Canberra’s Mount Stromlo Observatory.

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