Laser-Powered Aircraft Are The Future of Flight. Maybe

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

Laser-Powered Aircraft Are The Future of Flight. Maybe:

Myrabo first got the idea in 1988 while working on the “Star Wars” anti-missile shield. He calls it LightCraft, a funnel-shaped craft with a parabolic reflector. It channels the heat generated by a laser into its center, heating the air to about 30,000 degrees and causing the it to explode, generating thrust. Small jets of pressurized nitrogen spin the LightCraft at 6,000 RPM to maintain stability.

It was all just theoretical research — which the U.S. Air Force, NASA and the Strategic Defense Initiative provided $600,000 to help finance — until 1997. That’s when Myrabo, working with the U.S. Army at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, propelled a small LightCraft prototype (pictured at right with Tregenna Myrabo, business manager of Lightcraft Technologies; it was 6 inches long and weighed 2 ounces) 50 feet into the air. Another test in 2000 using a 10-kilowatt pulsed-carbon-dioxide laser saw the LightCraft climb to 233 feet during a 12.7-second flight. That’s not very high or very long, but then Robert Goddard’s first liquid-fueled rocket climbed just 41 feet during a 2.5-second flight.

Myrabo reportedly has made more than 140 test flights using small prototypes. He isn’t the only one exploring this field, either. Five years ago, NASA joined Tim Blackwell, a researcher at the Center for Applied Optics at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, in using laser propulsion to power a small model airplane. Researchers at the University of Tokyo have used a laser to propel a tiny airplane and detailed their findings in the journal Applied Physics Letters in 2002. Myrabo says he’s especially excited about tests being conducted cooperatively between the U.S. and Brazilian air forces; those tests, he says, are being done at greater power than any before.

Lasers remain the sticking point; even the most powerful laser is capable of only a modest test flight. But Myrabo is confident we’ll have that problem licked before long.

This seems like a better idea for powering a traffic helicopter or airship than a supersonic — pardon, hypersonic — transport.

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