Lasers in space sounds like something straight out of a science fiction movie showing a battle between two space-faring races, and so far, fiction is precisely where they belong. But there are plans afoot to place a mechanism on the International Space Station (ISS) that will shoot lasers, not for war, but to blast away space debris that litter the near-Earth space.

The idea itself is not new, but the technology to do it in a compact and safe way is only just being developed. And we still aren’t quite there yet. Which is why an international group of scientists — from France, Italy, Japan and Russia — are coming together to work on it.

Boris Shustov, member of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) and chairman of an expert group on space threats, revealed the international cooperation at a meeting Tuesday. He said the scientists would consider the application of orbital lasers on the ISS, so the space station could avoid collisions with the debris as small as a few centimeters, which are the most numerous of space debris around Earth.

Space_Debris An artist's illustration showing the swarm of space debris orbiting Earth. Photo: ESA/ID&Sense/ONiRiXEL

According to Oleg Palashov, who heads RAS’ Institute of Applied Physics and is the contact point for international participants in the laser project, the idea was first put forth in 2015 by Japanese scientists. In the original version of the project draft, the lasers would use 10,000 optical fiber channels and to work at full capacity, would require the entire electrical output of ISS.

Researchers are now trying to have the same energy output by using 100 “thin rods” built in Palashov’s institute, instead of optical fiber, and a way to reduce the overall energy consumption to only 5 percent of the ISS’ electrical production. This will allow the lasers to fire for 10 seconds, with 200 seconds required for recharging. The range of the lasers would be up to 10 kilometers (6.2 miles), and the whole set up would weight about 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds), according to details in Russian media.

ISS has to routinely make adjustments to its orbit — roughly 400 kilometers above Earth’s surface — to avoid junk in its path. This junk is created when rockets and spacecraft fall into disuse and disrepair, and are often broken into smaller pieces due to collisions with each other, or under the effect of radiation in the harsh environs of space. Space debris is perhaps the single largest risk to the future of space exploration.

NASA regularly tracks about 17,000 pieces of space junk larger than an apple in size, and another half a million pieces bigger than a marble. Another 200 million pieces or so, each larger than a millimeter, are floating in Earth’s orbit, traveling at the speed of 17,500 miles an hour. At that speed, even a tiny piece can do a lot of damage, like the actual hole in the solar panel of ISS.

Previously, Chinese scientists also came up with a plan to use lasers mounted on a satellite to destroy the junk in space, or at least send those objects on a trajectory toward Earth, where they would burn up upon reentry into the atmosphere.