Fill 'er up: NASA project would beam power to spacecraft

NASA wants to provide power to airborne spacecraft without having to use a refueling ship, instead beaming power to the craft via lasers or microwave energy.

The project, dubbed Ride the Light, aims to develop an inexpensive, modular power beaming capability to provide on-demand power for aerospace craft and other applications, according to the agency. In addition to seeking ways to beam power, the project also is exploring technologies that would allow the beamed power to be received.

The agency is funding its science-fiction-like idea through its Game Changing Technology Development program, awarding $3 million for concept studies to six companies, along with Carnegie Mellon University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Ride the Light could be applied to “space propulsion, performance and endurance of unpiloted aerial vehicles or ground-to-ground power beaming applications,” NASA said in its announcement. NASA said it will review the studies and make a decision on the project in 2013.

The idea of beaming power has been around for decades, but the proposed scale of the Ride the Light project would be a significant leap forward.

Research teams in several countries flew model aircraft powered by beamed microwave energy in the 1980s. But because microwave beams disperse over distance, they only worked in close proximity to the aircraft.

In 2003, NASA took a leap in laser technology, powering an 11-ounce aircraft with a 6-watt engine completely by laser beam inside a large building at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. That project used a 1 kilowatt laser projected at a panel of infrared-sensitive photovoltaic cells on the aircraft.

NASA’s plans for Ride the Light are much bigger, of course. But if it works, it might eventually lead to similar commercial applications down the road (way down the road, granted) in everyday use.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is editor of Defense Systems. Follow him on Twitter: @KevinMcCaney.

Reader Comments

Sun, Oct 2, 2011

If I were trying to develope this I'd take a hard look at Magnetic Reconnection in a plasma.

Wed, Sep 21, 2011 R. McPhee

Ride the lightning baby!!

Wed, Sep 21, 2011

>> In addition to seeking ways to beam power, the project also is exploring technologies that would allow the beamed power to be received. Wow, NASA really did their homework on this one. That's just how I'd set it up.

Tue, Sep 20, 2011

Its the space-based solar power application of this (really big satellites converting sunlight to enegy that's subsequently beamed to Earth for us to use) and beamed power propulsion (energy beamed from Earth to a launch vehicle to superheat propellant gasses which are ejected through a nozzle in the normal fashion to provide high efficiency (for the vehicle) thrust) that really interest me.

Tue, Sep 20, 2011 Marie Falls Church

That would be great if they could figure out how to do that without most of the energy being lost in transfer then it would have huge applications for power distribution on earth since even over power lines there is a tremendous waste of energy over distance.

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