Solar Flux Concentration for Orbital Debris Remediation

Reference#: P02955

Market Need
More than 500,000 pieces of debris, or “space junk,” are tracked as they orbit the Earth. They all travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft. Space debris includes man-made non-functional objects that are either in Earth orbit or re-entering the atmosphere. Some examples of space debris include non-functional satellites and fragments from space vehicle explosions or collisions. Space debris is a hazard to future space vehicles because of the risk of collision. The rising population of space debris increases the potential danger to all space vehicles, but especially to the International Space Station and other spacecraft with humans aboard.

Space debris can be separated into three categories by size: Category 1 (<1cm); Category 2 (1-10 cm); Category 3 (>10 cm). In particular, there are about 100,000 to 10,000,000 pieces of Category 2 space debris within 1600 km of the Earth's surface. Thus, it is important to remediate the large population of Category 2 space debris to reduce the chance of collision.

Technology Solution
High powered lasers that are either deployed on the ground or from space have been proposed as solutions to remediate Category 2 space debris objects. Earth-based lasers suffer huge propagation losses from atmospheric attenuation and turbulence, cloud obscuration, and pointing errors over the longer distances required to intercept debris. To compensate for the huge propagation losses, prohibitively high transmitter flux is required, making power requirements for ground lasers excessive and costly. The relatively low wall-plug efficiency of current laser technology makes space deployment very costly and virtually impractical relative to the launch costs, which place a severe limit on the size, weight and power (SWaP) of effective laser platforms.

Solar flux concentration has been proposed as a way to remediate Category 2 space debris. This method utilizes focused solar radiation to vaporize the space debris. In order to use solar flux concentration, a large area focusing system for concentrating sufficient solar radiation must be carried into space. Ordinarily, a typical focusing system has a lot of large and heavy optical components needed to enable high quality imaging. Solar flux concentration has less demanding requirements on surface curvature; especially using different technology (such as diffractive membrane optics). The mass and bulk of conventional optical components make it impractical for spacecraft deployment of such large apertures.

What is needed for effective space debris remediation is a system that has compact volume for easy transportation to space yet provides a large surface area after deployment that is easily managed and directed. Researchers at The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL) have developed a system for concentrating solar radiation onto space debris objects to vaporize them. This includes focusing, object tracking and positioning. The focusing system includes 2 focusing devices. The first focusing device changes from a compact state to a deployed state. The object tracking system determines the location of the debris. The positioning system orients the focusing system such that solar radiation focuses on the space debris.

The Opportunity
We are seeking a commercial transition licensee, either a start-up or an existing company, focusing on non-US Government customers who can successfully commercialize this IP.

Patent Status: U.S. patent(s) 8,873,168 issued.

Mr. E. Chalfin
Phone: (443) 778-7473

Link to U.S. Patent and Trademark Office