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 a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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