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NASA Looking To Power Spacecraft With Lasers 91

msmoriarty writes "NASA has decided to develop methods for using lasers and/or microwave energy to 'provide external power on demand for aerospace vehicles' as part of its 'Game-Changing' technology development program. According to the announcement, 'The project will attempt to develop a low-cost, modular power beaming capability and explore multiple technologies to function as receiving elements of the beamed power. This combination of technologies could be applied to space propulsion, performance and endurance of unpiloted aerial vehicles or ground-to-ground power beaming applications. Development of such capabilities fulfills NASA's strategic goal of developing high payoff technology and enabling missions otherwise unachievable with today's technology."
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NASA Looking To Power Spacecraft With Lasers

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  • Wow, that's great. It's just a shame that NASA can't get humans into space.

    Oh, wait . . . scratch that. It should read, "It's just a shame that Congress isn't capable of letting NASA get humans into space."

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Don't worry, the Chinese will probably copy this technology for their manned space missions.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Opportunist ( 166417 )

        How? Did NASA have China build the rockets?

      • either that or they aim it down and fry your brain from space? isn't this what Tesla spent his whole life trying to achieve ? Also if energy diminishes relative to distance, i'd like to see this happen before the year 2100 . Correctio, i hope to see this happen
    • Why bother for now? (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      It would be ridiculously expensive and dangerous, and it would tell us little that safer one-way robot missions cannot tell us for a fraction of the price.

      Don't get me wrong, I am as excited as anyone about space exploration and colonization; but the point is, for now the technology just isn't mature enough.

      Now, one could argue that sending people in space would be a good way to test our current technology and improve it; but the point is, most of the research and the testing that we _could_ do in space can

    • The basic physics says beamed energy is a good idea.

      Beamed energy lets you get about twice the exhaust velocity you can get with the best chemical fuels.

      That changes the mass ratio from 7.4 (to LEO with best chemical) to 3.

      That's the difference between 13.5% structure, engines and payload to 33% The minimum for reusable is thought to be around 15%, so the payload fraction goes from -1.5% to perhaps 18% of take off mass.

      Keith Henson
  • Keep on with science (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    If it does work, efficiently and at long range, we can finally get started on sending solar collectors up into space for space based solar power. [] Which'll go a damned long way towards moving us along the way to a type I civilization [].

    And, if we happen to get excess power, maybe we can funnel that off into building a mass driver so we can get back up to space cheaply and efficiently instead of this irritating rocket based technology.

    GET ON IT NASA! Work on REAL advances instead of listening to people harping

    • by Forty Two Tenfold ( 1134125 ) on Wednesday September 21, 2011 @05:48AM (#37465762)
      Stanisaw Lem, "Fiasco" []
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by neyla ( 2455118 )

      Working (as in safe, efficient, reliable and cost-effective) beaming-technology is one piece of that puzzle, but not the most difficult one to overcome.

      solar in space can collect 2-3 times the energy for the same size and quality cells. (no clouds, 24 hour illumination, no atmosphere) minus the unavoidable transmission-losses, you may still come out ahead of earth-based solar.

      However, being twice as efficient helps not at all, when you are also a thousand times as expensive. Launch-cost, assembly-cost and m

      • by Anonymous Coward

        "We'd need a space-elevator or in-space-manufacturing to significantly change this."

        But then, why would you need space-based solar? Do you have *any* idea of the colossal, VAST amounts of energy you'd need for a space elevator? I mean, if such as thing were even remotely possible? It isn't, BTW. It would be like 19th century engineers contemplating the size of steam locomotives they could build with fusion reactors. It makes no sense, and for all practical purposes, it's fantasy anyways.

        • by Rolgar ( 556636 )

          An elevator, if built would be worth it. Consider that we could daily send up more matter in a day than we currently lift in a year, for a fraction of the cost. People could ride up just for the fun of it. Is it currently technically feasible? Of course not, but decades of inexpensive lifting material into space will pay for itself eventually, and after that, it's practically free. But that only comes into play if the technical limitations are eventually overcome.

          All neyla was saying is that rocket launched

          • If I remember my random knowledge correct:
            A space elevator would cost 20 billions in RnD, which is quite cheap.
            Why has nobody sat down and done it? Because simpelly nobody has.

            • by Dog-Cow ( 21281 )

              That's utterly retarded statement. Until the RnD is done, how could you possibly know how much it would cost? Or is that figure the upper bounds before everyone gives up?

    • Yeah, right, like that's ever going to happen. The great unwashed are irrationally terrified that cell phones and wifi are causing brain cancer. How do you think they are going to react to giant solar collectors directing huge beams of freaking microwaves at the Earth? "Diabolical scientists plot to turn the planet into a microwave oven, film at eleven"
  • by Misagon ( 1135 ) on Wednesday September 21, 2011 @05:42AM (#37465728)

    If the laser propulsion tech that they are talking about is focusing light to create plasma of the surrounding air, then would this not create enormous amounts of ozone as a by-product?

    • would this not create enormous amounts of ozone as a by-product?

      In the past, yes. But nowadays... shut the hell up!

    • That was what I assumed it was too, and TFA didn't give any details ("Ride the Light" sounds like a new rollercoaster).
      I would imagine, with the amount of use this technology would get (i.e., number of launches) that any ozone created would be tiny as compared with the amount in the upper atmosphere.*

      But I dont see how this will get us into space. The higher the craft, the less efficient the push per beam of light.

      * This argument may have been made about CFCs, exhaust emission, etc so I may have to e
      • They've had a proof-of-concept of sorts for this for a long time. Here's a Science@NASA article from 1999 explaining it: []

        The craft is saucer-shaped, but it accelerates straight upward while it's still low in the atmosphere. From TFA:

        "That seems wrong but for another trick. The microwaves are reflected forward to create a superhot bubble of air above the craft and form an air spike that acts as the nose cone as the Lightcraft accelerates

    • by Timmmm ( 636430 )

      Haha, I love all the silly little nit picks that slashdotters try to come up with to show off their knowledge. Do you *really* think ozone production would be a problem?

    • IIRC, The current approach is to heat hydrogen.
    • What surrounding air? Aren't we talking about propulsion in SPACE?
      I think they mean some form of wireless transmission of energy. If I understand correctly, the trick will be to efficiently convert that energy to motion on the receiving side.

  • by tp1024 ( 2409684 ) on Wednesday September 21, 2011 @05:45AM (#37465742)
    Ion engines have been around for decades now and NASA still celebrates their use as a demonstration of how "high tech" NASA is.

    Most satellites and space probes still use extremely inefficient fuels even for large, energy intensive maneuvers - like going from Geostationary Transition Orbit(GTO) to the geostationary orbit (GSO) - mandating that they consist mostly of fuel for those maneuvers and having their life-time limited to however long it takes to deplete the fuel.

    Spaceflight is one of the most conservative and unchanging industries out there. There are dozens of game changers that didn't change the game. And using extremely expensive ground installations that will provide only part-time power to a satellite - doing worse than what cheap solar panels can do much better anyway - is a particularly inauspicious candidate to actually do change anything at all.

    In short: NASA, do us all a favor and shut up!
  • Release mentions propulsion. Photonic Laser Thrusters [] are probably the best way to accelerate a deep space probe if we ever want to see one reach a nearby star in our lifetimes.

    Atmospheric lightcraft [] on the other hand, seem to be doing rather poorly -- so far they've only managed to raise a hat-sized prototype about a hundred meters above the ground.

  • by strack ( 1051390 ) on Wednesday September 21, 2011 @06:03AM (#37465822)
    getting stuff into orbit would be a whole lot easier if you aim a array of lasers at a heat exchanger on the launch vehicle, and use it to heat up hydrogen for thrust. it would make easily reusable single stage launch vehicles feasible.
  • by undulato ( 2146486 ) on Wednesday September 21, 2011 @06:34AM (#37465914) Homepage
  • by mbone ( 558574 ) on Wednesday September 21, 2011 @07:34AM (#37466142)

    NASA has had a Centennial Challenge [] open in power beaming for some years now. From [] :

    This challenge is a practical demonstration of wireless power transmission. Practical systems employing power beaming would have a wide range of applications from lunar rovers and space propulsion systems to airships above the Earth. Another future application of power beaming would be the space elevator concept.

    In 2009 [] the competitors drove their laser-powered devices up a cable one kilometer high, suspended from a helicopter, and LaserMotive LLC was awarded $900,000.

    It turns out that it is really tough and actually somewhat dangerous to have a helicopter dangle a 1 km string perfectly vertical. This also "doesn't scale" (i.e., there is no way a helicopter is going to dangle a 5 km string for a longer test), and future competitions will be done horizontally, on the ground. (This also fits in with the idea of power beaming to rovers, say one exploring the always dark Shackleton Crater at the Lunar South pole, which is frankly a more realistic near-term prospect than a terrestrial space elevator.)

    I believe there is still $ 2 million (USD) to be awarded, so slashdotters should get to it and go out there and take the Governments money.

  • A prof. at my alma mater has been trying to do this for 25 years: []
  • by WindBourne ( 631190 ) on Wednesday September 21, 2011 @07:50AM (#37466230) Journal
    I have been writing one senator who sat on the Senate Arms Committee for the last 3 years suggesting that we do an X-Prize in America (or in the west) for 2 technologies.
    The first is energy storage. It must have the ability to last for millions of cycles, have the ability to take an extremely fast charge with extreme energy and power densities. Basically, this is almost certainly a better ultra-cap, however, you do not want to limit it just to ultra-caps. If somebody can figure out a new better device that fits the bill, then you want to support it. After all, it is possible (not likely) that a battery would do the trick.
    The second IS beaming power. This was to be in steps. The first was to be 1/2 km at 25% efficiency. THat would allow setting up local power. In particular, you can set up a power station and beam it to multiple points without wires. Think of a FOB or any place that needs to be set p quickly, but disassemble quickly as well. From a Civilian POV, it can be used to provide power to earth movers, diggers, etc At 25%, it has the same efficiency of a diesel. It can also be used to float a small balloon over a disaster area and provide local power QUICKLY. In any disaster, providing energy quickly makes the difference of life or death for many ppl. In addition, something like this will be a great deal lighter than loads of generators AND fuel.
    Then create 2 X-prize to jump this from .5 to 5 km again at 25%, while the second is .5 Km at 50% efficiency. With a 5 km range, it enables a tank battalion to have electric weapons, with another tank in the rear that can provide lots more power (think a nuke reactor in a tank). In addition, it allows something like an Aircraft Carrier to provide power to other ships that would then have electric weapons. Again for civilian uses, the high efficiency not only improves current equipment, but it will be picked up by Ag tractors, and other new equipment. The 5 km also allows trains to pick this up. With such an approach, it makes it cheap to provide electric power to a train. Maintenance is a huge costs in a train. Likewise, it can provider energy at an airport for electric planes esp. for take-offs. We speak of wanting electric planes, but carrying all your energy is expensive. But the truly expensive portion is getting to altitude. After that time, you cut way back on power. For beaming on a disaster area, 5 kms allows floating the balloon much higher and covering a great deal more area.
    Obviously, we need iterative prizes to continue jumping up efficiencies as well as distance. If it was possible to get 90% efficiency at .5 km, while only getting 30% efficiency at 200 miles, it is still major gains all over.

    So, good to see that NASA has more brains than my senator. But I guess that was a given.

    I really like this approach. If we can get hydrogen to expand via the electric heat, than we can make great strides in space travel. Now, if we can just get CONgress to kill the SLS and devote that money to private space launches as well as advanced R&D like this, we could get America back on track. Sadly, our CONgress is ran by a bunch of MBA/lawyer types esp. the house that are far more interested in helping themselves, rather than our nation.
  • Jerry Pournelle [] has used this in a number of his stories dating back to the early 1970s.

    In addition to The Mote in God's Eye [], where aliens used enormous lasers to send a solar sail-based ship across interstellar distances, he described a laser-based system to launch small (VW Beetle-sized) manned capsules into orbit.

    • by Shugart ( 598491 )
      Long before Jerry Pournelle and long before lasers, there was E. E. Smith, Phd. In his story "Spacehounds of IPC" that was serialized in Amazing Stories in 1931, a ship was powered by beamed power. I expect there were others even earlier.
    • by Gilmoure ( 18428 )

      Bob Forward's novel Rocheworld (Flight of the Dragonfly) [] nicely illustrates a laser boosted light sail space ship. He was an engineer with JPL and his writing's kinda' stilted but the science and tech is pretty cool.

  • Come on NASA, best you can come up with on solving power is copying a feature in Portal!?

  • by hyades1 ( 1149581 ) <> on Wednesday September 21, 2011 @08:43AM (#37466682)

    What we really need is a nice, big laser in a nice, high orbit. It should use photovoltaic cells to charge and have the range and power to give a meaningful kick to any spacecraft between Earth and Jupiter.

    It would be expensive to build, but if it was done properly, it could provide "free delta v" to a lot of suitably-equipped spacecraft for a very, very long time.

  • Is there a more detailed explanation of the technologies?
  • Am I the only one that caught on to the fact that "beaming energy" has enormous potential use as a weapon?

    I realize that's not the intention, and honestly, I think it's pretty neat, but it's somewhat alarming that the potential abuses do not seem to have been considered.

God help those who do not help themselves. -- Wilson Mizner