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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DISCOVER: Star Trek discusses how we might build a spacecraft that could cross the cosmos

Image: NASA/hobbyspace

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
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