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NASA Looking To Refuel Spaceships Via Laser Technology

In a NASA project named Ride the Light, the government organization is researching ways to refuel spacecraft from earth using microwave or laser energy.

According to NASA, the agency's aim is to provide on-demand power for craft and other applications, using an inexpensive, modular power beaming device. In addition to seeking ways to transfer power, the project also is exploring technologies that would allow the beamed power to be received.

The agency is funding its science-fiction-like idea through its Game Changing Technology Development program, awarding $3 million for concept studies to six companies, along with Carnegie Mellon University and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Ride the Light could be applied to “space propulsion, performance and endurance of unpiloted aerial vehicles or ground-to-ground power beaming applications,” NASA said in its announcement. NASA said it will review the studies and make a decision on the project in 2013.

The idea of beaming power has been around for decades, but the proposed scale of the Ride the Light project would be a significant leap forward.

Research teams in several countries flew model aircraft powered by beamed microwave energy in the 1980s. But because microwave beams disperse over distance, they only worked in close proximity to the aircraft.

In 2003, NASA took a leap in laser technology, powering an 11-ounce aircraft with a 6-watt engine completely by laser beam inside a large building at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. That project used a 1 kilowatt laser projected at a panel of infrared-sensitive photovoltaic cells on the aircraft.

NASA's plans for Ride the Light are much bigger, of course. But if it works, it might eventually lead to similar commercial applications down the road (way down the road, granted) in everyday use.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is the managing editor of Government Computer News.

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