NASA Is Testing A Laser
Propelled Flying Saucer
By Sean Hargrave
The agency is experimenting with the design because the saucer shape has obvious aerodynamic benefits. Tests on a tiny craft that weighs just 25g have been successful and wind-tunnel tests on a larger prototype are taking place. The envisaged test spaceship would measure 16ft across and carry four people.
NASA is working on the principle that craft that are as at home in space as in our own atmosphere will need a helping hand before getting beyond the pull of gravity. Rather than rely on tanks of rocket fuel, the agency is exploring means of transmitting power to ships from the ground to reduce weight " hence a saucer-shaped craft propelled into space by a laser beam.
The concept is not as radical as it sounds. It had been mooted as a means of launching satellites several years before Professor Leik Myrabo of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York State began toying with the notion in the 1970s. He has since proved the concept and is working on a prototype flying saucer for NASA and the U.S. Air Force.
In practice this will mean a spaceship guided from Earth by a powerful laser. When the craft reaches the edge of the atmosphere, and the lifting power of the laser dwindles, the energy source will be used to heat an on-board store of hydrogen fuel. It is expected that by the time the laser makes the switch from acting as a propellant to heating the hydrogen, the ship will be on the brink of the atmosphere, traveling at more than five times the speed of sound.
The on-board fuel source would then be used to enter space. It would not need to carry huge fuel tanks filled with liquid oxygen simply to break free of gravitational pull.
The shape of the prototype craft has a "shroud" around its lower side that focuses the laser light on a point on the underside of the saucer. This superheats and combusts the air there, making it act as a jet exhaust that propels the craft into the air.
Tests have so far been encouraging. Myrabo has managed to propel his tiny prototype to almost 100ft. A more powerful laser is to be built to expand the test. He surmises that a 1 gigawatt laser would be needed to get a full-size craft into space.
Wind-tunnel tests on a scale model of the 16ft-wide craft have started and further experiments of the laser-based propulsion system are due to take place later this year. A final craft is not expected to be rolled out for several years.
After meetings with other aeronautical engineers, Myrabo is predicting a second, even more futuristic saucer design. It could be equipped with microwave receivers so that power could be transmitted to the craft from an orbiting satellite when it is in space.
The ambitious project would require a satellite to capture solar energy and turn it into a microwave beam that would be beamed to the flying saucer. As with the ground-based laser system, reflectors on the craft would focus the microwaves on the side of the craft opposite to the intended direction of travel. The system could be beamed down to Earth to help launch the craft.
"My goal has been to cut the cost of getting to space by a factor of 1,000 using a system that is completely green [environmentally friendly]," Myrabo says.
"The system would require a fully mature infrastructure to support these vehicles, but it could bring about an era of airline-like space travel on highways of light."
A project involving flying saucers is bound to create controversy among the conspiracy theorists who claim that the American government is basing future spacecraft design on captured alien flying saucers. However, NASA dismisses such talk. It says: "It's wrong to liken these designs to UFOs because these are certainly identifiable."