Asteroid defence system in development using Star Wars-like laser satellites

10 Sep 2015

A team of researchers is looking to develop an asteroid defence system that will protect Earth by strapping a series of lasers to satellites to redirect asteroids away from our planet.

The ambitious asteroid defence system is being developed by researchers from the California Polytechnic State University and NASA and is called DE-STAR (Directed Energy System for Targeting of Asteroids and exploRation).

Rather than just sending nuclear missiles or Bruce Willis and a team of oil drillers to put a bomb on an incoming asteroid, the DE-STAR model would use an array of solar-powered satellites, each of which houses a kilowatt laser.

Once an asteroid is detected, the satellite will harness the power of the sun to direct a beam of energy at the incoming space debris and by heating one side it would emit enough heat – 3,000 Kelvin – to push it away from a collision course with Earth.

At its current developmental stage, DE-STAR has quite literally not even gotten off the ground yet, but according to its project page the team are starting a little smaller with basalt rock, similar in composition to asteroids.

Creating similar amounts of energy in the lab test on the spinning basalt rock using a laser, the team saw how the affected area became white-hot and slowed down.

Eventually, as seen in its video, the energy led it to stop spinning, only for it to begin spinning again in the opposite direction, showing how it would move away in the vacuum of space.

“Our video shows the basalt sample slowing down, stopping and changing direction and then spinning up again,” said the lead on the experiment, Travis Brashears, to CNet. “That’s how much force we’re getting. It’s a nice way to show this process and to demonstrate that de-spinning an asteroid is actually possible as predicted in our papers.”

The DE-STAR system they are developing is rather reminiscent of the Star Wars satellite programme proposed by former US president Ronald Reagan in the late 1980s as a means of shooting nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles out of orbit.

Asteroid heating up image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic