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Deflection of uncooperative targets using laser ablation

Thiry, Nicolas and Vasile, Massimiliano (2015) Deflection of uncooperative targets using laser ablation. In: Proceedings of SPIE - The International Society for Optical Engineering. SPIE. ISBN 9781628417821

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Owing to their ability to move a target in space without requiring propellant, laser-based deflection methods have gained attention among the research community in the recent years. With laser ablation, the vaporized material is used to push the target itself allowing for a significant reduction in the mass requirement for a space mission. Specifically, this paper addresses two important issues which are thought to limit seriously the potential efficiency of a laser-deflection method: The impact of the tumbling motion of the target as well as the impact of the finite thickness of the material ablated in the case of a space debris. In this paper, we developed a steady-state analytical model based on energetic considerations in order to predict the efficiency range theoretically allowed by a laser deflection system in absence of the two aforementioned issues. A numerical model was then implemented to solve the transient heat equation in presence of vaporization and melting and account for the tumbling rate of the target. This model was also translated to the case where the target is a space debris by considering material properties of an aluminium 6061-T6 alloy and adapting at every time-step the size of the computational domain along with the recession speed of the interface in order to account for the finite thickness of the debris component. The comparison between the numerical results and the analytical predictions allow us to draw interesting conclusions regarding the momentum coupling achievable by a given laser deflection system both for asteroids and space debris in function of the flux, the rotation rate of the target and its material properties. In the last section of this paper, we show how a reasonably small spacecraft could deflect a 56m asteroid with a laser system requiring less than 5kW of input power.