In NASA's Dreams: Laser-Launched Rockets and Deep Space Cruisers

By Patrick Morgan | February 16, 2011 5:17 pm

With the space shuttles soon bound for retirement homes, NASA is dreaming up the future of U.S. human space flight. Recently, NASA has divulged its interest in two new gadgets: rockets launched via lasers and reusable, manned, deep-space crafts. Now, all the agency needs is a plan to get more money from the government to actually build these things.

The lasers (or possibly microwaves) would be ground-based, and would shoot through the air to energize a rocket’s heat exchanger; elevating the rocket’s fuel to over 3,100 degrees Fahrenheit would give it more thrust.

“The objective is to reduce the cost of getting into space. The way this rocket works, it has a more energetic propulsive system than one where you have fuel and oxidizer that release energy,” Carnegie Mellon University’s Kevin Parkin, head of the Microwave Thermal Rocket project at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, told Discovery News. [Discovery News]

Although the laser-powered rocket system would be expensive to build, it would reduce launch costs in the long haul.

“It only makes sense economically if you’re going to launch a large number of payloads,” said physicist Jordin Kare, who pioneered the technology while working at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. [Discovery News]

NASA’s study to test the feasibility of such launches will wrap up this March.

As for the deep space cruiser, its name is the “Non-Atmospheric Universal Transport Intended for Lengthy United States eXploration,” or Nautilus-X. It would be capable of carrying six astronauts for two years, and of traveling either to the moon or into the depths of space. As outlined by NASA’s Technology Applications Assessment Team, this spacecraft could be assembled in orbit are ready for missions as early as 2020.

Nautilus is a multi-mission space exploration vehicle, so it could incorporate mission-specific propulsion units, according to Edward Henderson of NASA Johnson Space Center. Theoretically, you could swap out engines and fuel depending on where you wanted to go. Such an all-purpose system would be simpler than building heavy-lift rockets for specific missions to the moon or Mars. [Popular Science]

This ambitious craft would contain a ring centrifuge to provide partial gravity for the crew, and would be assembled partly from expandable units like the inflatable space habitats being built by the private company Bigelow Aerospace. The price tag on this deep-space craft, though, is $3.7 billion–about 20 percent of NASA’s annual budget. So for now these next-generation technologies are just dreams.

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Image: NASA/hobbyspace

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
  • Brian Too


  • Ryan

    Please fund this!

  • s

    Editors: Spelling error….

    “…rockets launched bia lasers and reusable…”

    I think maybe “via”?

    (please don’t think I’m being picky….just trying to help. :) )

  • Eliza Strickland

    @s: Yep, that was a typo. Thanks for catching it!

    — Eliza, DISCOVER online news editor

  • Matt B.

    That ship even looks cool. And it would be the first space ship too. Everything up to now has been a probe or a craft.

    I would avoid the name “Nautilus” though; you might end up with no one (Nemo) captaining it. 😉

  • mike

    I love how the images still have correction suggestion lines under them.

  • steinmentz1

    Build these large explorer ships in space with landing and takeoff shuttles attached. Fuel can be made in space. Use sails and ion engines.

  • Eddy

    Is that X3: TC?!

  • Inspiro Assistant

    This is awesome! It is worth funded, why not make it a space ship instead of craft? So not only 6 people could fit in. Even if its yet a dream , I look forward to it’s first mission.


    hey look in the left upper corner! there is pic from CP game named X3 Terran conflict!
    i can see argon buster undocking from free argon trading station.
    WTF is this :DDDDD

  • Lighthouse

    For what it is worth here are YouTube vids of a laser driving TPV cells, testing optics and a nuclear rocket test.. The power beaming system was built by a group of people that was underfunded and working weekends using off theshelf parts. The laser was designed for cutting sheet metal. This system could delivery 8000 watts with a range of 1000 meters or more while maintaining a beam size of less that an 8 inch diameter

    Imagine if a system was funded, designed and built for the specific purpose of laser powered rocket !!! Basically this is a variation of the Nuclear NERVA rocket that was proven to have twice the specific impulse of the best chemical rockets. The concept replaces the onboard nuclear reactor with ground based lasers.

    To watch YouTube videos search on:
    – ” The climber ‘melt test’ as seen through the reflecting mirror ”
    – ” Burning some boards ”
    – “ ROVER NERVA Nuclear Rocket Engine test stand #2”
    – ” Experimental Nuclear Thermal Rocket Engine “


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