Beam-powered propulsion is a class of spacecraft propulsion mechanisms that use energy beamed to the spacecraft from a remote power plant to provide energy. Most designs are rocket engines where the energy is provided by the beam, and is used to superheat propellant that then provides propulsion, although some obtain propulsion directly from light pressure acting on a light sail structure, and at low altitude heating air gives extra thrust.
The beam would typically either be a beam of microwaves or a laser. Lasers are subdivided into either pulsed or continuous beamed.
The rule of thumb that is usually quoted is that it takes a megawatt of power beamed to a vehicle per kg of payload while it is being accelerated to permit it to reach low earth orbit.
Other than launching to orbit, applications for moving around the world quickly have also been proposed.
Rockets are momentum machines; they use mass ejected from the rocket to provide momentum to the rocket. Momentum is the product of mass and velocity, so rockets generally attempt to put as much velocity into their working mass as possible, thereby minimizing the amount of working mass that is needed. In order to accelerate the working mass, energy is required. In a conventional rocket, the fuel is chemically combined to provide the energy, and the resulting fuel products, the ash or exhaust, are used as the working mass.
There is no particular reason why the same fuel has to be used for both energy and momentum. In the jet engine, for instance, the fuel is used only to produce energy, the working mass is provided from the air that the jet aircraft flies through. In modern jet engines, the amount of air propelled is much greater than the amount of air used for energy, bypass ratios of 10 to 1 or greater are typical. This is not a solution for the rocket, however, as they quickly climb to altitudes where the air is too thin to be useful as a source of working mass.
Rockets can, however, carry their working mass and use some other source of energy. The problem is finding an energy source with a power-to-weight ratio that competes with chemical fuels. Small nuclear reactors can compete in this regard, and considerable work on nuclear thermal propulsion was carried out in the 1960s, but environmental concerns and rising costs led to the ending of most of these programs.
Full article ▸