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Beam-powered propulsion

Beam-powered propulsion is a class of spacecraft propulsion mechanisms that use energy beamed to the spacecraft from a remote power plant.

Many proposed spacecraft propulsion mechanisms use power in the form of electricity or heat. Usually these schemes assume either solar-electric power, or an on-board reactor. However, both power sources are heavy. Therefore, one could instead leave the power-source stationary, and power the spacecraft with a maser or a laser beam from a fixed installation. This permits the spacecraft to leave its power-source at home, saving significant amounts of mass.

Microwave broadcast power has been practically demonstrated several times. The first time was at Goldstone California, in 1974.

The power beam can also be used to provide impulse directly, for example using a solar sail to reflect a laser beam or using a magnetic sail or MMPP sail to divert a beam of charged particles from a particle accelerator.


Recent tests by Leik Myrabo, with the US Army, have demonstrated the feasibility of using ground-based lasers to propel objects into orbit; possibly reducing orbit-flight costs by a factor of 1000. The test succeeded in reaching over 100 feet, which compares to Robert Goddard's first test flight of his rocket design.

Myrabo's "lightcraft" design is a reflective funnel-shaped craft that channels heat from the laser, towards the center, causing it to literally explode the air underneath it, generating lift. This method, however is dependent entirely on the laser's power, and even the most powerful models currently can only serve for modest test purposes.

Non-spacecraft applications

In 2002 a Japanese group propelled a tiny aluminium airplane by using a laser to vaporize a water droplet clinging to it, and in 2003 NASA researchers flew an 11-ounce model airplane with a propeller powered with solar panels illuminated by an infrared laser. It is possible that such beam-powered propulsion could be useful for long-duration high altitude unmanned aircraft or balloons, perhaps designed to serve as communication relays or surveilance platforms.

See also: spacecraft propulsion