Microwave and laser beam arrays for space launch

Laser propelled spacecraft would be small, simple and expendable with the complicated launch system on the ground. Credit: Jordin Kare

Astrobio.net – NASA is now conducting a study to examine the possibility of using beamed energy propulsion for space launches. The study is expected to conclude by March 2011.

With the beam shining on the vehicle continually, it would take 8 to 10 minutes for a laser to put a craft into orbit, while microwaves would do the trick in 3 to 4 minutes. The vehicle would have to be designed without shiny surfaces that could reflect dangerous beams, and aircraft and satellites would have to be kept out of the beam’s path. Any launch system would be built in high-altitude desert areas, so danger to wildlife shouldn’t be a concern.

Laser array- each beam module can fit on a shipping container. Credit: Jordin Kare

Kevin Parkin developed the idea of microwave thermal propulsion in 2001 and described a laboratory prototype in his 2006 PhD thesis. A practical real-world system should be possible to build now because microwave sources called gyrotrons have transformed in the last five decades, he says. One megawatt devices are now on the market for about a million US dollars.

The smallest real laser launch system would have 25 to 100 megawatts of power while a microwave system would have 100 to 200 megawatts. Building such an array would be expensive, says Kare, although similar to or even less expensive than developing and testing a chemical rocket. The system would make most economic sense if it was used for at least a few hundred launches a year.

The main components of the beam facility should last for well over ten thousand hours of operation, typical of this class of hardware, so the savings can more than repay the initial cost.

Usually in a conventional rocket you have to have three stages with a payload fraction of three percent overall,” says Kevin Parkin, leader of the Microwave Thermal Rocket project at the NASA Ames Research Center. “This propulsion system will be single stage with a payload fraction of five to fifteen percent.”

In the near term, beamed energy propulsion would be useful for putting microsatellites into low Earth orbit, for altitude changes or for slowing down spacecraft as they descend to Earth. But the technology could in the future be used to send missions to the Moon or to other planets and for space tourism.

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