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The official daily newspaper of EAA AirVenture Oshkosh

Volume 9, Number 3 July 29, 2008     

Flying by laser light – “Beam me up, Scotty”
By David Sakrison

Dr. Leik Myrabo hopes to revolutionize space launches with his "Laser Lightcraft."

EAA member Dr. Leik Myrabo is one of a few dozen forward-thinking scientists who are working on a better, cheaper, safer way to hurl payloads from way down here to way up there.

"The trouble with rockets," he says, "is that they are very, very thirsty. Launching even a small payload into orbit requires huge amounts of fuel and it’s a vicious circle. The bigger the payload, the more thrust you need. The more thrust you need, the more fuel you need to carry along. And the more fuel you carry, the less weight you have left over for payload. Getting the right ratio of fuel, thrust, and payload is always a delicate balancing act."

Back in the 1990s, Myrabo borrowed ideas and technology from the Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars") and launched a tiny "laser lightcraft" straight up, using beamed energy propulsion (BEP), at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The craft’s thrust came from a ground-based 10-kilowatt CO2 pulsed laser.

His softball-sized, 50-gram aluminum "vehicles" have since made 150 flights reaching a maximum altitude of 230 feet. While that is far short of orbital altitude, it is enough, says Myrabo, to prove the concept. With a 1-megawatt laser (100 times 10 kilowatts), he says he could launch a vehicle up to 1kg (2.2 lbs) into orbit. Since most of the vehicle’s "engine" and "fuel" remain on the ground, its size and weight, he says, is limited only by the frequency of the laser and the amount of beam power it can produce.

Myrabo’s Laser Lightcraft looks like a highly polished child’s top. For each launch it is spun at 13,000 rpm to stabilize it during flight. "It’s really a flying gyroscope," he says. Pulsing 25 times per second, the ground-based laser beam hits the vehicle’s parabolic underside. Reflected out to the rim of the vehicle, the beam superheats the air at the vehicle’s edge, the air expands explosively, and the vehicle is pushed upward on a pulsejet of superheated air. That’s the atmospheric version.

For space flight, the vehicle’s rim—its "engine"—is lined with some kind of inert propellant for the laser to vaporize. Myrabo has used Delrin—a kind of plastic—as propellant, but he says any substance that expands explosively would work—even water. Future air-breathing laser- or microwave-powered lightcraft could scavenge water from clouds on their way up, and then use that water to leave the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds.

Myrabo’s lightcraft could also be powered from above by a laser or microwave acting as a kind of "tractor beam." The beam would be re-directed by mirrors to the vehicle’s underside, where it would be converted to thrust.

Myrabo’s immediate goal is to develop a practical way of delivering payloads up to 100kg (220 lbs.) into space at a very low cost. "It will take 1 million watts (1 megawatt) of power to put 1 kilogram in orbit," says Myrabo." Today we have terrestrial electric plants that put out a gigawatt all day. We could send thousands of small satellites into orbit for the cost of just a few hundred dollars per kilogram of payload."

"Beam me up, Scotty," might be closer to reality than we once thought.

Ultimately, the vision shared by Myrabo and his colleagues goes way beyond launching nano-satellites. They foresee a global transportation grid to power freight trains, suborbital passenger and cargo flights, orbital insertions, and interplanetary flights. It would be powered by huge ground-based and orbiting solar panel arrays—a "solar grid"—that could eventually provide up to 70 or 80 percent of the world’s electrical energy.

The revolutionary lightcraft is a totally "green" transportation solution, says Myrabo. It burns no fossil fuels and releases no CO2 or other emissions. A solar grid infrastructure for the planet would promote the development of electric and hybrid cars, trucks, trains, and light planes, he says and would reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Myrabo’s lightcraft technology will be featured in a television documentary, "Flying on the Grid," to be aired this fall.

A professor at Renssellaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, Myrabo is an aerospace engineer with a Ph.D. in engineering physics. He spent seven years working on the Star Wars program—"the only place to learn about microwave and laser power beaming technology"—before beginning work "in earnest" on his laser lightcraft about 25 years ago.

His company, Lightcraft Technologies Inc., continues to push the frontiers of flight propulsion. You can learn more at www.lightcrafttechnologies.com.

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