Laser propulsion

It is said that aiming a laser from earth, the moon, etc, could be used to propel a spacecraft receiving such a laser beam. It is also said that a solar sail could use the reflection of photons to move through space.

Now my question is, while impractical what stops an on board laser being used and aimed at a slight angle to a surface that reflects the light in the opposite direction of intended traveling direction?
 
If you're using an on board laser, you don't need an extra surface. The backside of the laser cavity will do. Just like a rocket. Unbelievably impractical and inefficient though, as you said.

By aiming the laser on a second surface, we're not going anywhere.

www.gentec-eo.com
 
If you're using an on board laser, you don't need an extra surface. The backside of the laser cavity will do. Just like a rocket. Unbelievably impractical and inefficient though, as you said.

By aiming the laser on a second surface, we're not going anywhere.

www.gentec-eo.com
My question was regarding the consideration of using lasers even for interplanetary travel. And the suggestion that stationary lasers could be used, to get even to near lightspeed.

PLT is predicted to be able to provide the thrust to power ratio (a measure of how efficient a thruster is in terms of converting power to thrust) approaching that of conventional thrusters, such as laser ablation thrusters and electrical thrusters. Yet, PLT has the highest specific impulse (a measure of how fast the fuel can propel spacecraft) orders of magnitude larger than that of other conventional thrusters.-http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laser_propulsion" [Broken]
Photon particles, lacking mass and electric charge, had previously been dismissed as inefficient for producing thrust; to overcome these limitations, says Bae, the PLT system repeatedly bounces photons between two mirrors....

Bae considers PLT to be well suited to various space applications, such as accelerating spacecraft to near light speed and meeting thrust power requirements for NASA spacecraft formation flight configurations.-http://www.militaryaerospace.com/index/display/article-display/289144/articles/military-aerospace-electronics/volume-18/issue-4/news/bae-institute-demonstrates-first-photonic-laser-thruster.html" [Broken]
Given that a large ship could carry enough fuel to perform fusion or fission to generate large quantities of energy for millenia, it seems that generating photons could be done long term.

If stationary lasers are considered viable, why not on board lasers(a side from the current impracticalities of putting a fusion or fission reactor). Some modern advances have been suggested to even enable x-ray laser generation seemingly cheaply.
 
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If stationary lasers are considered viable, why not on board lasers(a side from the current impracticalities of putting a fusion or fission reactor).
The current impracticality of putting a fusion or fission reactor on board a spacecraft is a very serious hurdle!

Photonic propulsion for high precision maneuvering may be feasible, but I don't expect it as a main propulsion system in the near future. Either way, it is still a very new and exotic technology.
 
The current impracticality of putting a fusion or fission reactor on board a spacecraft is a very serious hurdle!

Photonic propulsion for high precision maneuvering may be feasible, but I don't expect it as a main propulsion system in the near future. Either way, it is still a very new and exotic technology.
Yes, but I imagine while currently financially impractical, a large Colonization ship could well have an on board reactor and lots of fuel(generating vast quantities of energy for multiple millenia), though it could run out of physical propellant on very long voyages, photons could be easily generated throughout the voyage.
 
Well whichever propellant is used, you'll need a lot of it, because you'll need to produce quite a bit of high energy photons to push the weight of such a large vessel. It's very speculative. The fact that you have a nuclear reactor means you need radiation shielding which are almost by definition dense, heavy metals. Heavy means more photon propulsion, which means a stronger reactor, which means more shielding, which means more weight...

These are amongst the most powerful diodes (diodes are compact and efficient) available:
http://www.as.northropgrumman.com/businessventures/ceolaser/products/laserdiodes/index.html

As for the most powerful CW research laser (neither compact or efficient):
http://www.engadget.com/2010/12/12/northrop-grummans-100-kilowatt-laser-fired-for-six-hours-straig/
 
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mheslep

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My first thought when I saw the OP's part about a fixed planetary laser propelling a spacecraft was not momentum transfer from photons but a photoelectric energy capture, which then is used to produce thrust via some high velocity acceleration of on board matter, plasma, etc. Seems like that's more likely to be successful, at least superficially.
 
Here's the first craft to use solar sails.
http://www.jspec.jaxa.jp/e/activity/ikaros.html [Broken]

Both momentum transfer and energy capture are in effect in this case.
 
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D H

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As for the most powerful CW research laser (neither compact or efficient):
http://www.engadget.com/2010/12/12/northrop-grummans-100-kilowatt-laser-fired-for-six-hours-straig/
To illustrate the silliness of this idea, let's up the ante a bit. Well, not just a bit. A whole lot. How about a laser that consumes, without any losses, the equivalent of the entire world's electric energy production? That was about 6.25×1019 joules for 2005, or about 2 terawatts. The thrust produced by a 2 terawatt laser: 6,700 newtons.

A spacecraft that produces 6,700 newtons of thrust and contains a 2+ terawatt power plant and a 2 terawatt CW laser will not go anywhere.
 
The 6 kN of thrust is significant, but continuous TW is for science-fiction books.
 

D H

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The 6 kN of thrust is significant, but continuous TW is for science-fiction books.
For a light vehicle, yes. For a vehicle that contains a 2 terawatt power plant and a 2 terawatt laser, no. Even in science fiction land, the combined mass of those two would be beyond immense. The resultant acceleration would be next to nothing.
 
I am not arguing with you D H!

But I'm not about to say the OP's ideas are "silly" neither!:smile:

And I'm certainly not aware of rules within science-fiction land!:wink:
(now which one is that where they go "0.5 past lightspeed"... "in less than 12 parsecs"...)

Good night guys.:zzz:
 
My first thought when I saw the OP's part about a fixed planetary laser propelling a spacecraft was not momentum transfer from photons but a photoelectric energy capture, which then is used to produce thrust via some high velocity acceleration of on board matter, plasma, etc. Seems like that's more likely to be successful, at least superficially.
but it is said laser and solar sails can propel themselves from EM pressure

To illustrate the silliness of this idea, let's up the ante a bit. Well, not just a bit. A whole lot. How about a laser that consumes, without any losses, the equivalent of the entire world's electric energy production? That was about 6.25×1019 joules for 2005, or about 2 terawatts. The thrust produced by a 2 terawatt laser: 6,700 newtons.

A spacecraft that produces 6,700 newtons of thrust and contains a 2+ terawatt power plant and a 2 terawatt CW laser will not go anywhere.

Ion thrusters accelerate slowly but they do gain in speed through time. In space one may assume the object will tend to remain in motion, and even small acceleration should add up over long periods of time. Also fission reactors need not be extraordinarily large, and shielding requirements depend upon the construction of the ship.

The trade-off for the high top speeds of ion thrusters is low thrust (or low acceleration). Current ion thrusters can provide only 0.5 newtons (or 0.1 pounds) of thrust, which is equivalent to the force you would feel by holding 10 U.S. quarters in your hand. These thrusters must be used in a vacuum to operate at the available power levels, and they cannot be used to put spacecraft in space because large amounts of thrust are needed to escape Earth's gravity and atmosphere. -http://www.nasa.gov/centers/glenn/technology/Ion_Propulsion1.html" [Broken]
nuclear waste from which no more energy could be extracted could also be expelled to supplement efforts by reducing mass and providing additional propulsion
 
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D H

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but it is said laser and solar sails can propel themselves from EM pressure
I'm not disputing solar sails. IKAROS (see post #8) is on route to Venus right now. Note however that chemical rockets were used to launch the vehicle and to give the vehicle Earth escape velocity. It would take a long time to escape from high earth orbit to solar orbit via solar sails. They have hardly any oomph.

Solar sails work because solar radiation pressure at 1 AU is 1.412 kW/m2. IKAROS is a 315 kg vehicle with a 200 square meter solar sail. Tilting the sail at the optimal 35.3 degree angle between the sail normal and the sun axis yields a thrust is 1.25×10-3 newton at 1 AU, or an acceleration of about 4×10-6 m/s2. Want more thrust? Go closer to the Sun or make a bigger sail. Using a solar sail to get to the outer planets is going to run into the same 1/r2 problems that preclude use of solar arrays beyond Mars.

Ion thrusters accelerate slowly but they do gain in speed through time.
Ion thrusters, puny as they are, give about 50 times the thrust that IKAROS will achieve. The only advantage of solar sails is that no fuel is required. They eliminate the nastiness of the rocket equation.

In space one may assume the object will tend to remain in motion, and even small acceleration should add up over long periods of time. Also fission reactors need not be extraordinarily large, and shielding requirements depend upon the construction of the ship.
Now you're talking about a laser powered vehicle with the laser onboard the vehicle. All of the nastiness of the rocket equation comes into play. This is a non-starter of a concept. Photons are quite simply the absolute worst choice for exhaust.

The kinetic energy of a non-relativistic exhaust particle relative to the vehicle is 1/2mv2. The momentum imparted to the vehicle by ejecting that particle is mv. The momentum to energy ratio is 2/v. Perversely, a slow-moving exhaust stream generates more thrust per unit of energy than does a high velocity stream. The downside to a slow-moving exhaust stream is that you have to eject a lot more mass to get the same delta V, something you don't want to do because of the rocket equation. Nonetheless, there still remain some advantages to a slower-moving exhaust stream. This is the basic idea behind the VASIMR engine.

That factor of 2 in the momentum to energy ratio drops as exhaust takes on relativistic speeds, eventually becoming 1/c for photons. This makes photons doubly worse as a choice for exhaust. About the only time photons make sense is when the photons comes from matter / antimatter annihilation, and that is pure science fiction.
 
That factor of 2 in the momentum to energy ratio drops as exhaust takes on relativistic speeds, eventually becoming 1/c for photons. This makes photons doubly worse as a choice for exhaust. About the only time photons make sense is when the photons comes from matter / antimatter annihilation, and that is pure science fiction.
Nuclear proponents claim even current global energy consumption could be maintained for over 100+B years with resources in the earth's crust. I imagine the nuclear fuel is but a very small fraction of the crust which is a small fraction of the earth's mass.

It would seem that a 100+B years of such vast energy generation, should one be able to concentrate similar quantities of fuel, is virtually inexhaustible. One could use say 50% of the energy for acceleration for 100+B years, acceleration would have to be very very little to not have an impact if we allow for long intervals of time.

If scaled down to several millenia(for acceleration times) with similarly reduced fuel mass requirements, would it truly be completely impractical?

As for antimatter, it seems artificial generation of such is prohibitively energetically expensive, concentration of nuclear fuels is infinitely more practical.
 
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Rough calculations, indicate that while one will eventually reach one's target, the acceleration speed for reasonable masses using simple photon emission are too low leading to unacceptable duration of interstellar trips.

edited 2

This http://blog.xkcd.com/2008/02/15/the-laser-elevator/" [Broken] seems to shed some light on the original bae comments about overcoming inefficiencies of photon emissions with multiple reflections.

Hypothetically it seems that a ship could drop thin mirrors behind it as it moved and thus gain 1000xmore momentum per photon emitted, via multiple reflection,vastly improving the situation. As the laser elevator paper implied a stationary mirror at one end, laying mirrors closer along the way may allow for even greater than 1000x gain, depending on what factors cause this limit.

edit 3

It seems the photonic laser thruster system shows 3000xamplification of radiation pressure

For deceleration mirror mass should be negligible as the mirror could be thrown in front of the ship(such throws should provide backwards propulsion), and can be recaptured as the ship moves forward, the reflections would provide more deceleration, the mirror or a few mirrors could be used and reused until the ship is fully decelerated.
 
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D H

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If scaled down to several millenia(for acceleration times) with similarly reduced fuel mass requirements, would it truly be completely impractical?
First off, a space mission that spans millennia has zero chances of coming to pass anywhere in the near future. It will not happen in my lifetime, and probably not in yours. The problem of how to get to the stars belongs to some future generation. If such a mission does come to pass it almost certainly will not be using any kind of propulsion technology that we know of now.

That said, let's play with this. The best space-based, fission-powered generator is Russia's TOPAZ generator. It's specific power (power per unit mass) is about 10 watts/kilogram. NASA's cancelled Project Prometheus hoped to improve this to 15 watts/kilogram. Let's assume an order of magnitude improvement to 100 watts/kilogram. Ignore that to run for millennia the vehicle will need to carry a lot of extra nuclear fuel onboard. Ignore that lasers are rather imperfect devices; they consume a lot more power than they produce as coherent light. Ignore that this laser will have significant mass. In short, we have a vehicle that magically produces photons for propulsion at the cost of a 100 watts/kilogram power plant, and does so forever. The mass of the power plant cancels out in computing the acceleration. The result is 100 watts/kg/c, or 0.334 micrometers/second2. Expressed another way, that acceleration amounts 10.5 meters per second per year.

A vehicle is not going to get to the stars anytime soon with 10.5 meters per second delta V per year.
 
First off, a space mission that spans millennia has zero chances of coming to pass anywhere in the near future. It will not happen in my lifetime, and probably not in yours. The problem of how to get to the stars belongs to some future generation. If such a mission does come to pass it almost certainly will not be using any kind of propulsion technology that we know of now.

That said, let's play with this. The best space-based, fission-powered generator is Russia's TOPAZ generator. It's specific power (power per unit mass) is about 10 watts/kilogram. NASA's cancelled Project Prometheus hoped to improve this to 15 watts/kilogram. Let's assume an order of magnitude improvement to 100 watts/kilogram. Ignore that to run for millennia the vehicle will need to carry a lot of extra nuclear fuel onboard. Ignore that lasers are rather imperfect devices; they consume a lot more power than they produce as coherent light. Ignore that this laser will have significant mass. In short, we have a vehicle that magically produces photons for propulsion at the cost of a 100 watts/kilogram power plant, and does so forever. The mass of the power plant cancels out in computing the acceleration. The result is 100 watts/kg/c, or 0.334 micrometers/second2. Expressed another way, that acceleration amounts 10.5 meters per second per year.

A vehicle is not going to get to the stars anytime soon with 10.5 meters per second delta V per year.
Ahhh, but if you did not take mirror reflections into effect, I think you'd have to multiply acceleration by 3000 as the vehicle receives 3000 times the radiation pressure from each photon emitted.
 
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D H

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Ahhh, but if you did not take mirror reflections into effect, I think you'd have to multiply acceleration by 3000 as the vehicle receives 3000 times the radiation pressure from each photon emitted.
Are you talking about the mirrors inside the laser? There is no net force from the light bouncing back and forth inside the laser. All that matters is the number of photons exiting the laser per unit time and the frequency of those photons. "What happens in the laser stays in the laser" (not quite right of course; the tiny fraction of light that does gets out is the laser's reason for being).
 

mheslep

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"What happens in the laser stays in the laser"
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Hard_Townes" [Broken] WC Fields? :tongue:
 
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DaveC426913

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Are you talking about the mirrors inside the laser?
No, he linked to an article in post 16 about laser reflections.

It's by the author of XKCD. :rofl:
 
Are you talking about the mirrors inside the laser? There is no net force from the light bouncing back and forth inside the laser. All that matters is the number of photons exiting the laser per unit time and the frequency of those photons. "What happens in the laser stays in the laser" (not quite right of course; the tiny fraction of light that does gets out is the laser's reason for being).
It seemed that an external mirror in a stationary laser could be used to bounce lasers between a ship's mirror and the stationary laser's mirror. The work appears to have been extended to work between two ships or satellites with mirrors such that the photon bounces back and forth between both thus imparting additional momentum per photon via multiple bounces.

Now, the question would be whether this can be extended such that a ship can deploy very thin and light mirrors behind it on its journey. I hypothesize that at least it should be viable for deceleration as the mirror can be thrown in front of the ship and recovered.
 

DaveC426913

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It seemed that an external mirror in a stationary laser could be used to bounce lasers between a ship's mirror and the stationary laser's mirror. The work appears to have been extended to work between two ships or satellites with mirrors such that the photon bounces back and forth between both thus imparting additional momentum per photons via multiple bounces.

Now, the question would be whether this can be extended such that a ship can deploy very thin and light mirrors behind it on its journey. I hypothesize that at least it should be viable for deceleration as the mirror can be thrown in front of the ship and recovered.
flash, please.

http://xkcd.com/" [Broken].
 
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flash, please.

http://xkcd.com/" [Broken].
But they comment on ahttp://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2002JSpRo..39..258M"


Abstract
In principle, spacecraft that do not carry their own propellant but are propelled by the transfer of momentum of photons can be accelerated to very high velocity. The subject of this research is a laser propulsion system utilizing the momentum of photons recirculating in an optical cavity that consists of a mirror on the spacecraft and a mirror fixed at the laser source. This configuration allows the photons in the beam to be recycled, thus multiplying the effective power of the laser. The gain of this system over a conventional lightsail depends on the number of times the photons can be recycled. We analyze the physics of this propulsion method, compare it with rockets, and examine its use for several cases of interest. We find that improvements in thrust on the order of 1000 over conventional lightsails may be feasible using mirrors whose reflectivity is 0.9995, but that diffraction sets the limit on system performance as the cavity expands. However, a system not too far from the current state of the art could reach Pluto in about 6.5 years. Other potential applications include rapid interplanetary delivery, reconnaissance of a new comet, and probes beyond the solar system.-http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN&cpsidt=13593751"
The basic idea or principle seems to be what one can infer from reading the bae institute's info with regards to the workings of the photonic laser thruster.
 
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D H

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The Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets is one of the top journals in the field. This paper goes to show that just because a paper is published in a peer reviewed journal does not necessarily connote good science or engineering.

In this case, incredibly bad science and engineering. Some problems:

Pointing and tracking. The normals to the mirrors must be extremely closely aligned to the line between the laser and spacecraft to achieve 1000 reflections off the spacecraft mirror. To make matters worse, the pointing control needs to be active due to relative motion. This is much harder than the control needed for Hubble, which typically aims at remote stars. A spacecraft with a one arcminute pointing error is doing very good. At a distance of 100 km between the spacecraft and laser, a spacecraft mirror with a 1 km radius would need to be aligned within 0.5 arcseconds to achieve 1000 reflections, and that is ignoring all other error sources.

Beam divergence. CW lasers have beam divergences measured in the milliradians. More problems: divergence increases with power, and we're going to need a lot of power. To have half the photons achieve 1000 reflections off the spacecraft mirror at a distance of 100 km, the beam width needs to be 1 arcsecond, or 0.5 microradians. As with pointing error, beam divergence will make the number of reflections decrease linearly with distance between the spacecraft and laser.

You'll shoot your eye out. To have 1000 reflections off the spacecraft mirror with a mirror radius of 1 km means that beam needs to hit a spot with an area of about 3 square meters. The kind of power needed to provide meaningful thrust won't reflect off the mirror. It will disintegrate it. The military is interested in 100 kW lasers precisely because they can quietly take out enemy targets at long range.

Optically flat and solar sail are contradictory terms. A solar sail with a radius of 1 km will not be optically flat. The quality of the reflectors needed to achieve 1000 internal reflections at distances of tens of kilometers or more is unimaginably high. Optically flat surfaces are carefully shaped and polished. You will not get 1000 reflections off a solar sail. Period.

99.95% reflectivity and solar sail are contradictory terms. A solar sail is made out of a thin, flimsy film. A reflectivity of 95% is high for a coated film. 99% is ultra-high. 99.95% is once again requires careful machining and polishing. While 99% sounds close to 99.95%, it isn't. A surface with a reflectivity of 99.95% will have absorbed about 40% of the energy after 1000 reflections off the mirror. Reduce the reflectivity to 99% and that percentage increases to 99.95%.
 
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