Space lasers: They may be useful for more than deflecting blame for wildfires.

Aerospace experts estimate there are more than 20,000 pieces of floating junk hovering in orbit above the Earth. The objects range in size from a cell phone to a space station. That can create navigational problems aplenty for satellites and other orbiting equipment still in use.

Most of the problem is in what engineers describe as low Earth orbit, up to about 750 miles above the Earth.

"As it turns out, the garbage is going at very high speeds," said Moriba Jah, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas. "The relative speeds are 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) per second, so 15 times the speed of a bullet."

Fixing the problem will involve a mindset shift from how we think about space. There is a tremendous risk of one of these objects hitting a piece of equipment. A manned spacecraft getting hit could be catastrophic.

"So something the size of a cell phone hitting the space station at these high speeds will totally obliterate a whole section of the space station; we're talking likelihood of loss of human life as a consequence," Jah said. "If something the size of a cell phone hits one of these working satellites, that's probably game over for that satellite working."

But a Russian scientist will be publishing a new study in the April issue of Acta Astronautica attempting to solve the space junk problem.

Egor Loktionov heads the Bauman Moscow State Technical University and is the lead author of the paper. His team members have tested a variety of spacecraft materials. They want to use the materials as satellite laser targets to see how those materials react when exposed to laser pulse emissions.

The process, known as irradiation, is being proposed as a potentially safe way to get rid of the debris. Clearing the junk is preferable to it running into a functioning object in space or crashing to the surface of the Earth. The U.S. space station known as Skylab crashed into parts of Western Australia in 1979.

"Many ways to capture debris have been suggested to date, few are tested and none really practices," Loktionov said. "Laser space debris removal, to my mind, should provide a cheaper, more reliable and flexible way to do the job."

The process would melt the debris into plasma. Known as laser ablation, the process would reduce the number of defunct satellites and other potentially dangerous garbage in space.

In 2020, just one company -- Elon Musk's SpaceX -- launched more than 800 satellites. The launches were part of Starlink, the company's proposed broadband internet system. More satellites, Loktionov warns, means more debris.

Space Junk
There are more than 500,000 pieces of space debris orbiting Earth. World Science Festival