Laser powered flight

Lightcraft Technologies has successfully flown its 4.8-inch diameter laser-boosted rocket, a small piece of futuristic hardware that rode a beam of light generated from the High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Propulsion for the device is generated when beamed laser energy strikes a parabolic condensing reflector mounted on the bottom of the Lightcraft. This area is lined with a thin coat of special plastic that ablates when hit by the laser pulses, causing the Lightcraft to thrust upward.

A US Army 10-kilowatt pulsed carbon dioxide laser sent the Lightcraft soaring up to 233 feet in a flight lasting 12.7 seconds, making it longest ever laser-powered free flight.

The Lightcraft set another milestone when, for the first time and in co-operation with the North American Aerospace Defence Command, the laser beam on which the Lightcraft rode was sent straight up into space.

Lightcraft flights in the past, performed with Air Force sponsorship, used a ‘beam backstop’ where the Lightcraft would ride on the light beam and then crash into a black-painted plywood board that was positioned high over the laser facility.

First successful tests of laser-pushing a Lighcraft through the air began in 1997 and development of the idea for the last few years has been under joint sponsorship of the US Air Force and NASA.

The record-breaking Lightcraft flights were funded by a grant from the Foundation for International Non-governmental Development of Space, a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting low-cost access to space.

Tregenna Myrabo, business manager of Lightcraft Technologies, now has the task of pushing small, customised constellations of microsatellites into orbit via high-powered laser.

Orbiting microsatellites by laser is revolutionary technology and current launch costs could be reduced by a factor of 50, said Myrabo.