The space geeks among you will doubtless have heard of the laser propulsion concept before, but it’s largely remained ensconced in the realms of the theoretical so far. However, the superbly-named Leik Myrabo reckons he has cracked it, and is currently working on bringing his ideas to a commercially viable status:
Basic research experiments using high-powered lasers are underway in Brazil, with experts investigating the central physics of laser-heated airspikes and pulsed laser propulsion engines for future ultra-energetic craft.
At the Brazil-based lab, a hypersonic shock tunnel is linked to two pulsed infrared lasers with peak powers reaching the gigawatt range – the highest power laser propulsion experiments performed to date, Myrabo said.
“In the lab we’re doing full-size engine segment tests for vehicles that will revolutionize access to space,” Myrabo emphasized. “It’s real hardware. It’s real physics. We’re getting real data…and it’s not paper studies.”
“Right now, we’re chasing the data,” Myrabo said. “When you fire into the engine, it’s a real wallop. It sounds like a shotgun going off inside the lab. It’s really loud.”
The laser propulsion experiments, Myrabo added, are also relevant to launching nanosatellites (weighing 1 to 10 kilograms) and microsatellites (10 to 100 kilograms) into low Earth orbit.
Now, colour me cynical if you will, but I reckon that last throwaway point there about the microsatellites may be the the more plausible goal for this technology, and the stuff about sending passenger vehicles into suborbital space is optimistic grandstanding designed to attract attention and investment. [image by Krassy Can Do It]
Even if the researchers (who are sponsored under international collaboration between the United States Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Brazilian Air Force) are convinced of their omega point, cheap microsat launches will at least provide an income stream while development continues. Either way, it’s good to see another option on the table for commercial space launches.