Australians lead efforts to move space junk with lasers
Hundreds of thousands of objects are orbiting in high-velocity swarms around the Earth. Many of these, in the event of a collision, could ignite catastrophic accidents junking the world's orbital telecommunications networks.
Australian company Electro Optic Systems (EOS) is leading efforts to track this potentially killer debris 38,000km (24,000 miles) above our heads, and is at the forefront of a boom in Australian space research.
EOS chief executive Ben Greene says space agencies are worried that a trivial metal bolt could hit a satellite, breaking off more space junk missiles that would cripple other satellites.
He estimates there are 20,000 orbiting objects "bigger than a football", but hundreds of thousands the size of a nut or bigger, and that a massive space pile-up is likely within 20 years.
Satellites cost A$30m to A$3bn and take years to get into orbit, so the penalty for failing to protect them is high.
"We're talking about A$1tn ($870bn; £550bn) up in smoke in a few weeks," says Mr Greene.
"And once it starts, it's unstoppable. That's 100% likely; the only thing that's not certain is when it will happen."
EOS will use ground lasers to log orbital objects, but this is just to "buy time", Mr Greene says.
The "Star Wars" stage comes next as researchers perfect the use of lasers to shunt menacing objects into the atmosphere where they safely disintegrate. The trick is to transform theory from the lab into intense lasers.
"Even the smallest amount of light puts pressure on the surface it lands on," Mr Greene says. "The mid-range of objects between 5cm and 10cm are very amenable to moving around with light, and they present 90% of the threat for satellites."
EOS has attracted US aerospace contractor Lockheed Martin for the object-logging phase, signing a deal in August to build a new tracking station in Western Australia. It is also collaborating with the government's Mt Stromlo Observatory in the Australian Capital Territory on research to perfect laser optics.
The company could be moving objects with lasers in 10 to 20 years but the biggest challenge is to industrialise its solution, building ground stations around the world. A confident Mr Greene says the plans are "the most aggressive in the world".
Roger Franzen, technical programme manager at the Australian National University Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Mt Stromlo, says that to find such tiny objects against an infinite universe requires dialling-down the brightness of the background stars.
"You have a clean optical tunnel through which you can image debris and push a laser beam through that" to move the target object, Mr Franzen says. "And once you confirm you can manoeuvre the debris, you have a stronger case for the business."
Although it is a poster child for Australian industry, EOS is just one of a growing band of 300 indigenous companies exploiting space, says the Space Industry Association of Australia.
Australia has also just beaten the US and Germany to host the prestigious 2017 International Astronautical Congress, the world's premier space event that will bring 3,500 delegates to South Australia and pump A$18m into the state's economy.
"It will be a huge boost to the cause of space in Australia," says Michael Davis, the association chairman.
Australia's pivotal role in the world's largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), is further encouragement, he says. Thirty-six big antenna dishes are being built for the A$160m SKA Pathfinder project in Western Australia. The project aims to understand galaxy evolution.
Although there are scant numbers on the contribution space research makes to the Australian economy, Mr Davis says Britain's analysis from its redoubled efforts "shows that the economic benefit multiplier is very impressive".
Tim Parsons is founding executive of Delta-V, Australia's first space start-up business accelerator, a collaboration of industry, universities and entrepreneurs, backed by a NSW government grant.
He points to a strong Australian space science diaspora - for instance, Australian geologist Abigail Allwood is leading Nasa's search for life on Mars - as proof of the country's expertise, but laments a commensurate lack of local industry.
"We don't have a strong start-up culture around space [and] hardware and engineering in this country," Mr Parsons says.
Although Australia punches above its weight in terms of space scientists, it is too small to sustain a solely domestic space sector; entrepreneurs must attract overseas investments and revenues. For instance, EOS supports itself by making subsystems for customers including the US military.
Wilson da Silva, founding editor of Australia's only literary science magazine, Cosmos, and the first Australian scheduled to fly on Virgin Galactic, says "there's been a long history of lack of interest from government and bureaucracy".
"Governments have a blind spot with space; they don't take it very seriously and that has reflected itself in how [Australian] corporations have gone out on their own to work with international partners."
He cites Australia's lack of a science minister for the first time since the portfolio was created in 1931 as a reason why he's "quite down" on domestic space exploitation.
EOS's Mr Greene says Australia has a window of opportunity to be a leader in an emerging global business.
"By the time we're fully operational, we'll save four to five satellites a year. We can basically freeze the equation" leading to catastrophic losses, he believes.