Scientists in Australia plan to track tiny pieces of debris in space and blast them with Earth-based lasers to prevent potential collisions.

The new Space Environment Management Cooperative Research Centre (SEMCRC) aims to predict the trajectories of debris from Mount Stromlo Observatory in Canberra.

Eventually, researchers hope to be able to knock objects off course using lasers, forcing them to slow down and fall back into the atmosphere where they will burn up harmlessly.

Matthew Colless, head of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Australian National University, said the amount of space junk orbiting Earth, from tiny screws to parts of old rockets, needs to be addressed.

He wants to avoid a real life repeat of events in the film Gravity, in which astronauts played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are left drifting in space after a collision between satellite debris and their spacecraft.

Gravity poster
Gravity depicts two astronauts cast adrift after a debris collision

“We now want to clean up space to avoid the growing risks of collisions and to make sure we don’t have the kind of event portrayed in Gravity,” Mr Colless said.

“There are hundreds of thousands of pieces of space junk in orbit that are big enough to do serious damage to a satellite or space station.

“Everywhere humans have been in space, we leave some trash behind.”

More than 20,000 pieces of discarded equipment, including old satellites, parts of rockets and other fragments, are orbiting Earth in a band between 500 and 900 miles from the surface of the planet.

Ben Greene, chief executive of the SEMCRC, which is due to begin operating fully later this year, said: “There is now so much debris that it is colliding with itself, making an already big problem even bigger.

“A catastrophic avalanche of collisions that would quickly destroy all satellites is now possible.

“Our initial aim is to reduce the rate of debris proliferation due to new collisions, and then to remove debris by using ground-based lasers.”