(New Scientist Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Beam riders: lift-off for rockets powered by light
Does the future of space launchers lie with rockets that ride on beams of radiation?
FOR half a century we have struggled into space. Our rockets may look majestic and powerful as they thunder skyward on a pillar of fire, but in fact these chemical-fuelled behemoths are barely up to the job. It takes a huge vehicle, shedding stages as it goes, to carry even a small payload into orbit. That makes launch costs enormous. Worse, it really takes the fun out of space travel.
"When I was a student I sat down and thought about all the amazing things you see on TV?- like the space hotels in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I asked myself, why isn't that happening?" says Kevin Parkin. "Space exploration just wasn't going anywhere." Now based at the Silicon Valley campus of Carnegie Mellon University in Moffett Field, California, Parkin is trying to take it somewhere. His aim is to build an entirely new kind of space rocket, one that will fly on a beam of microwaves.
If Parkin were alone, this might sound like wishful thinking, but he and his research group are collaborating with NASA's Ames Research Center nearby. It has recently spent $2 million on a powerful microwave source to be used primarily for propulsion research. Parkin's team is also swapping notes with a company called Escape Dynamics in Broomfield, Colorado, which is likewise dedicated to developing microwave-based rockets.
Meanwhile, engineers at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, and the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have spent the last six months studying beamed propulsion, looking at Parkin's plans along with two other schemes for beam-riding spacecraft. NASA won't yet talk about its findings, but the ultimate aim is to slash launch costs. In theory such rockets should be able to reach space in a single bound, instead of today's laborious multistage clamber. And if their proponents are correct, a craft that flies into space on a beam of photons should be far cheaper and more flexible than today's launchers, finally opening space up to the full force of commercial exploitation.
The problem with chemical rockets is that they rely on a heavy blend of fuel and oxidiser. This mixture packs a relatively modest punch for its weight, so most of the thrust goes into lifting the fuel itself and little is left over for the vehicle's structure and payload. Immense ingenuity goes into designing lightweight rockets, but it is a matter of high-tech cheese-paring, with scant returns. "There is a physical limit on how efficient chemical rockets can be," says Dmitry Tseliakhovich of Escape Dynamics. "This means they cannot provide commercially viable, cheap and convenient exploration of space."
What are the alternatives? All sorts of futuristic solutions have been suggested, from nuclear-powered rockets to a great space elevator ascending on a cable of carbon nanotubes. Parkin has considered them all, "and one by one I threw them overboard", he says. "Some just needed too many miracles at once." The space elevator, for example, would need more than one great technological leap. And while nuclear rockets might work well in deep space, as launch vehicles they suffer glaringly obvious safety issues.
Another old idea seemed more realistic. Beaming power to a space rocket was first suggested in the 1920s by the father of rocketry, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. A rocket with energy supplied by some external source would be free to soar, unburdened by heavy fuel. In 1972, American engineer Arthur Kantrowitz developed the idea much further, suggesting that a powerful laser beam sent from the ground could be used to zap a solid propellant on board the rocket, turning it into superheated plasma and providing a high-velocity exhaust. Kantrowitz calculated that roughly 1 megawatt of laser power would be enough to put 1 kilogram of payload into orbit.
Small laser-powered plasma rockets have flown. Leik Myrabo of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, has built "lightcraft" that can use on-board propellant as suggested by Kantrowitz. Within the atmosphere, it can also use the surrounding air as propellant. The craft has a mirrored underside that focuses an incoming laser beam, heating the air to tens of thousands of degrees and creating an exploding plasma that forms the rocket exhaust. In 2000, one of Myrabo's prototype lightcraft flew to a height of 71 metres, setting the altitude record for a beam-powered rocket.
A full-scale lightcraft could prove costly, however. The power must come from a pulsed laser that delivers a series of intense blasts. These lasers are particularly expensive, says Jordin Kare of Lasermotive in Seattle. In the late 1980s, Kare was investigating plasma propulsion at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Super-powerful pulsed lasers seemed a realistic prospect at the time, courtesy of the US "Star Wars" missile defence programme. But when that project was cancelled, Kare realised that without military cash there was little chance of developing these monster lasers. He began to look for alternatives, and eventually hit on the idea of using a heat exchanger.
The idea is simple. The rocket is fitted with a fuel tank containing a gas such as hydrogen, plus a set of pipes or channels into which the gas is pumped. An incoming laser beam heats the channels to a few thousand degrees and the gas expands and shoots out at high speed, pushing the rocket along. Kare started work on a heat exchanger along these lines, but funding dried up.
Ten years later, unaware of Kare's idea, Parkin came to much the same conclusion - except that he planned to use microwaves rather than lasers. "Microwaves are much cheaper," he says. High-power microwave sources called gyrotrons have been developed for nuclear fusion research, and the gyrotron bought by Ames Research Center can pump out a megawatt of microwave power. That works out at $2 per watt, a better price-to-power ratio than with most household LED light fittings.
The first ever microwave engine was certainly cheap. Parkin put it together in 2005 at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, using a pair of copper funnels designed for watering garden plants, a $10 ceramic tube and a microwave source borrowed from a lab down the hall. The funnels formed the end-caps of a resonant chamber to trap microwaves - much as in a microwave oven - which heated an alumina tube inside the engine while hydrogen gas was pumped though.
It wasn't ideal. "When alumina gets too hot it goes the consistency of chewing gum, and blows a hydrogen bubble," he says. Somehow the set-up survived temperatures of up to 1700 °C, though, and shot out a jet of hot gas.
The crucial number for a rocket is the speed of that exhaust. Faster is better as it means more thrust per kilogram of propellant. The exhaust velocity of the NASA space shuttle's main engine, for example, is about 4400 metres per second, near the upper limit of what is possible in a chemical rocket. To do better, you need to inject more energy into the propellant. For the microwave rocket, that means turning up the heat. The choice of propellant is also crucial. Hydrogen is best because of its lightweight molecules, which at any given temperature are moving faster than those of a heavier substance. With slight modification Parkin's experimental engine would have been capable of producing an exhaust velocity of 7000 metres per second. In other words his ramshackle set-up could, in theory, have beaten the space shuttle.
But it was far from being an actual rocket. A working design would need to keep a tight beam of microwaves focused on a fast-moving and ever-diminishing target. Aiming at the rocket shouldn't be too hard, says Parkin, as sensors on board could monitor the microwave intensity and send feedback to the antenna.
A trickier problem is that diffraction makes any beam spread out, potentially becoming uselessly fuzzy at long range. The longer the beam's wavelength, the worse the effect. With a wavelength of 1.7 millimetres, Parkin's microwaves will be more than 1000 times as unruly as photons of laser light.
Diffraction can be minimised by using a large dish at the microwave facility to concentrate the beam. Parkin calculates that a 120-metre-wide dish would keep the beam focused to a few metres across at a range of 100 kilometres. The dish would combine the power from a few hundred gyrotrons, and to prevent too much of that power being absorbed by water vapour in the atmosphere, the beam facility would need to be in a high, dry location, such as Chile's Atacama desert.
Still, Parkin's vehicle may have to spread itself out to capture the full width of the beam. The initial plan is to build something like a flying wing, with a thin heat exchanger covering the whole of one side. That heat exchanger will be the crucial component, and Parkin has been experimenting with different materials and arrangements of channel. "At the moment we're making multichannel thrusters the size of a credit card by micro-machining them out of graphite," he says. These are hit with 20 kilowatts of microwave power, a fair advance on the 200 watts of his first experiment. Parkin says a full-scale vehicle might use carbon-fibre channels coated with silicon carbide, which absorbs microwaves well and can protect the channels during re-entry into the atmosphere as it is oxidation-resistant.
While real hardware is being developed at Carnegie Mellon University, Escape Dynamics is taking a virtual approach, designing and testing their prototype rockets using computer simulations. "By the end of this year we want to complete the proof-of-concept by taking the heat exchanger and beaming virtual energy to it, to see how efficient energy transfer is," says Tseliakhovich. If all goes well, they will construct a working prototype in 2012.
Parkin and Tseliakhovich calculate that a small microwave rocket should be able to carry up to 15 per cent of its weight as payload - compared with about 2 per cent for current launchers - and send cargo into space for less than $600 per kilogram, compared with about $10,000 per kilo for the cheapest chemical rockets. That opens up all sorts of possibilities for space exploration and industry. Space-based solar power stations beaming microwave energy down to Earth could become commercially viable. Mining missions might be sent to the asteroid belt. And those legendary space hotels could become a realistic proposition after all.
While the beaming apparatus is an expensive component for small-scale launches, it becomes much less so for a heavy lifter?- if you wanted to send up astronauts, for example. The beam doesn't need to be any tighter (in fact, as the vehicle size increases, it could even be a little looser) so the cost per kilogram of payload drops fast. "For a heavier vehicle, it is a huge advantage to go with microwaves," says Parkin.
Lasers a-re certainly not out of the running, however. "The prospects for both are pretty good, but I think that lasers will win," says Kare. "There's a bigger market for laser technology than for microwave, and the price is coming down." Instead of one big expensive laser, he says, it makes sense to use smaller, commercially available devices. In 2009, for example, US-based IPG Photonics announced a 10-kilowatt fibre laser for welding and cutting. Link many such devices and you can build a launch system, say Kare. For each laser you would also need a telescope mirror about a metre across, costing a few hundred dollars, which could concentrate the beam onto the heat exchanger. In Kare's concept study, 1000 of these units combine to launch a 100-kilogram payload, carried by an arrow-like rocket with a 29-metre-long propellant tank and a flat 4-metre heat exchanger mounted at the base. "I'm hoping to be able to do some heat exchanger tests very soon, since we have several kilowatts of lasers available," says Kare. He is also hopeful that the NASA/DARPA study will prompt new investment in the idea. "It is a serious look at these technologies for the first time in a number of years," he says.
That joint study is also looking at Myrabo's lightcraft, which Myrabo, perhaps not surprisingly, believes has greater potential than Parkin's and Kare's vehicles. "I don't want to call them opposition?- I applaud their efforts?- but heat-exchanger rockets still have to lift all their propellant from the ground," Myrabo says. As his lightcraft can use the surrounding air as propellant while it climbs through the atmosphere, it would only need to switch to on-board propellant for the final boost phase.
Tests of a model lightcraft in a hypersonic wind tunnel show that the air-breathing mode still works at up to Mach 10, or around 40 per cent of orbital velocity. "We have a flying vehicle that sits stably on a laser beam," says Myrabo. "All we need to do is scale up in power." While Kare suspects that it will be too costly to build a sufficiently powerful pulsed laser, Myrabo is more optimistic. "These things can be made. There just needs to be a dedicated effort," he says. "Alternatively, a plasma engine could be developed that uses continuous-wave lasers or microwaves?- but I am not going to say how."
Serious funding for one of these beam-riders could result from the NASA/DARPA study. Whatever the outcome, Parkin is confident of steady progress. "We hope to be running at 1 megawatt in a year or two and build a flying demonstrator within a decade," he says. "The most important thing is convincing people that you aren't crazy." n
Stephen Battersby is a consultant for New Scientist based in London
"What happens to conventional air travel if the oil price doubles or quadruples?" asks Leik Myrabo of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. His answer is a saucer-shaped vehicle that uses a futuristic kind of propulsion called magnetohydrodynamic drive.
At hypersonic speeds, the saucer's motion should heat the passing air so much that it ionises, becoming an electrical conductor. Electrodes on the saucer send a current through the air and magnets can then accelerate it around the craft and away behind, creating thrust.
The idea is to power such vehicles from above, with microwave beams sent down from orbiting power stations. With such a potentially vast power source there would be no need to save energy by packing hundreds of people onto each vehicle as in today's airliners. Instead, Myrabo envisages small personal saucers. "They could carry two to five people anywhere on the planet in 45 minutes," he says.
If that doesn't satisfy your wanderlust, you could even head off-planet. This saucer could accelerate fast enough through the upper atmosphere to hurl itself into orbit, Myrabo claims.
He even drafted a group of design students at the University of Umeå in Sweden to draw up plans for spaceports and saucer interiors, though he appreciates that you won't be flying your personal flying saucer any time soon. Among other things, it needs a lightweight antenna to convert the microwave beam into electrical power, and then of course there's the small detail of a network of orbiting power stations.
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