Removing orbital debris with lasers

Claude R. Phipps, Kevin L. Baker, Stephen B. Libby, Duane A. Liedahl, Scot S. Olivier, Lyn D. Pleasance, Alexander Rubenchik, James E. Trebes, E. Victor George, Bogdan Marcovici, James P. Reilly, Michael T. Valley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

128 Scopus citations


Orbital debris in low Earth orbit (LEO) are now sufficiently dense that the use of LEO space is threatened by runaway collision cascading. A problem predicted more than thirty years ago, the threat from debris larger than about 1 cm demands serious attention. A promising proposed solution uses a high power pulsed laser system on the Earth to make plasma jets on the objects, slowing them slightly, and causing them to re-enter and burn up in the atmosphere. In this paper, we reassess this approach in light of recent advances in low-cost, light-weight modular design for large mirrors, calculations of laser-induced orbit changes and in design of repetitive, multi-kilojoules lasers, that build on inertial fusion research. These advances now suggest that laser orbital debris removal (LODR) is the most cost-effective way to mitigate the debris problem. No other solutions have been proposed that address the whole problem of large and small debris. A LODR system will have multiple uses beyond debris removal. International cooperation will be essential for building and operating such a system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1283-1300
Number of pages18
JournalAdvances in Space Research
Issue number9
StatePublished - May 1 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • Adaptive optics
  • Laser ablation
  • Orbital debris removal
  • Phase conjugation
  • Segmented mirror design
  • Space debris

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aerospace Engineering
  • Space and Planetary Science


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