A number of systems have been proposed that can produce laser propulsion. One of the most promising near term possibilities involves a process called laser ablation, in which a pulsed laser beam strikes a surface, heats it up, and burns off material to create what is known as a plasma plume—a column of charged particles that flow off the surface. The outflowing of that plasma plume—essentially, exhaust—generates additional thrust to propel the craft.
In an Applied Optics paper, Rezunkov and Schmidt describe a new system that integrates a laser-ablation propulsion system with the gas blasting nozzles of a spacecraft. Combining the two systems, the researchers found, can increase the speed of the gas flow out of the system to supersonic speeds while reducing the amount of burned fuel.
The researchers show that the effectiveness of current laser-propulsion techniques is limited by factors including the instability of supersonic gases as they flow through the gas nozzle, as well as the production of shock waves that “choke” the inlet of the nozzle, reducing thrust. But those effects can be reduced with the help of a laser-ablation plasma plume that is redirected so that it will flow close to the interior walls of the nozzle. Coupling the ablation jet with supersonic gas flow through the nozzle, they find, significantly improves the overall thrust generated by the nozzle.
“Summarizing the data obtained, we can forecast the application of the supersonic laser propulsion techniques not only for launching small satellites to Earth orbits but also for additional acceleration of supersonic aircrafts to achieve Mach 10 and more,” Rezunkov said.
The effectiveness of current laser-propulsion techniques is limited by the instability of supersonic gas flow, caused by shock waves that “choke” the inlet of the nozzle, reducing thrust. Those effects can be reduced with the help of laser ablation, redirecting the plasma plume so that it flows close to the interior walls of a supersonic nozzle and significantly improving the overall thrust (Image credit: Y.Rezunkov/IOIE)
Abstract – Supersonic Laser Propulsion
To produce supersonic laser propulsion, a new technique based on the interaction of a laser-ablated jet with supersonic gas flow in a nozzle is proposed. It is shown that such parameters of the jet, such as gas-plasma pressure and temperature in the ablation region as well as the mass consumption rate of the ablated solid propellant, are characteristic in this respect. The results of numerical simulations of the supersonic laser propulsion are presented for two types of nozzle configuration. The feasibility to achieve the momentum coupling coefficient of Cm∼10^−3 N/W is shown. © 2014 Optical Society of America
No big Laser Technology But Array of ten to hundred kilowatt Laser modules is feasible
There is no existing technology for a single very large laser. However, arrays of ten to hundred kilowatt laser modules is feasible. The US military services (army, navy, airforce) are deploying tens to hundreds of kilowatt laser modules now in trucks, planes and ships on a pilot basis. By the early 2020s, there should be hundreds of such systems deployed and some could combine into megawatt scale systems.