Lasers in daylight can better detect space debris orbiting Earth, new study suggests

This drifting thermal blanket, photographed in 1998 during STS-88, is among thousands of pieces of space debris orbiting our planet.

(CNN)In director Alfonso Cuaron's 2013 space thriller "Gravity," Sandra Bullock's astronaut character dons a suit for a spacewalk in orbit around Earth, upgrading hardware on the Hubble Space Telescope.

With just a few minutes' warning, a field of space debris comes hurtling toward the team's space shuttle, disabling the craft and killing the remaining crew aboard. The survivors, played by Bullock and George Clooney, then set off on a high-stakes plan to take refuge on the International Space Station, hundreds of miles away, using their suits' propulsion systems to transport them.
Nightmare scenarios like that one might keep astronauts and space mission planners up at night. These scenarios could also become a lot less likely, according to a new study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.
    A more precise and versatile technique for detecting space debris was outlined by researchers from the Austrian Academy of Sciences, so that devastating space collisions will firmly remain in the province of science fiction.
    At present, the few space debris laser detection stations in the world are primarily effective for a few hours each day, around twilight, just when it's dark at satellite ranging stations around the world and while debris in space is still lit up by the sun.
    But the Austrian team said they've pioneered a way to "visualize space debris target(s) in daylight," which could dramatically expand the potential observation time for researchers around the world to visualize and precisely map the trajectories of each piece of space debris.
    "One of our conclusions is that it is important that more stations worldwide connect to help create better predictions," said Michael Steindorfer, a postdoctoral researcher at the Space Research Institute in Austria.
    That data could help create a brighter space future for all of us.
    A computer-generated image representing space debris as could be seen from a high Earth orbit. The two main debris fields are the ring of objects in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) and the cloud of objects in low Earth orbit (LEO).