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Scientists aim to fuel spacecraft launches with lasers

shuttle launch
If the space shuttle could be launched using lasers, the savings would be great   

Could reduce fuel costs, environmental impact

December 12, 1997
Web posted at: 10:47 a.m. EST (1547 GMT)

(CNN) -- Thousands of pounds of liquid gas are ignited each time a spacecraft is launched into orbit. The gas load is costly and its burnoff contributes to pollution. Scientists hope a new method will prove to be cheaper and better for the environment: launching rockets with lasers.

Using lasers to propel spacecraft and satellites into orbit may sound like science fiction.

But at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, a team made up of scientists from NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has already "launched" a 6-inch, 2-ounce model 50 feet into the air using a high-powered, infrared laser.

Watch Bill Hemmer's entire report as seen on CNN
icon 2 min. 15 sec. VXtreme video
Experiment with model   

"To our knowledge, this is the first time a vehicle of this nature has been propelled to an altitude like this on a laser beam," said Rensselaer's Leik Myrabo, one of the project team's directors. (icon 102K/8 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

The launch system works by concentrating laser beams and aiming them at the craft, which converts their energy into a propulsive fuel. Successfully elevating the model was no small feat, but NASA has set its sights on bigger goals.

"NASA's interest in this technology is for eventually using this to place small satellites into low Earth orbit, and perhaps in the future even maneuvering satellites into higher orbits," said NASA research manager John Cole.

If the space shuttle could be launched using lasers, the savings could be astronomical, explained Franklin Mead of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory. Because the fuel source stays on the ground, the spacecraft is lighter, saving a tremendous amount of money. It currently costs $10,000 to lift just one pound of payload into space. (icon 272K/24 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Beamed energy propulsion could also revolutionize the future of air travel on our planet. Myrabo suggested that in the future, a new type of airborne vehicle could pick you up at your home, then go to a laser fuel station and from there, carry you anywhere in the planet in under an hour. (icon 230K/20 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

While laser propulsion may improve spacecraft efficiency and cut costs, the environment could be this technology's biggest benefactor.

"The reason I think this technology is so important... is that it allows us in the future to get rid of the dependency on fossil fuels," Myrabo said. "(Laser) propulsion systems ... are very environmentally friendly."


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