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Are laser-powered spacecraft just a shot in the dark?

Nearly a decade ago, Leik Myrabo shared with Scientific American readers his vision for the future of space travel: a "LightCraft" pushed out to the stars by a pulsed infrared laser beam from the ground or pulled into space by a laser beamed down from a solar-powered station orbiting Earth. (Read the article here.) Myrabo, an associate professor of engineering physics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., described in his April 1999 article a grand plan for constructing these orbital stations and a beamed-energy craft that could transport passengers out to space.

Ten years—and reportedly 140 test flights using small prototypes—later, he foresees laser flight carrying people around the globe and into space by 2020, Wired.com reported from "Expanding the Vision of Sustainable Mobility," a conference hosted last week by the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. For this scenario, ground-based lasers called LightPorts would provide the energy needed to propel the crafts, although Myrabo acknowledges that this won't become viable until more powerful lasers are developed and jet fuel becomes expensive enough to force the aviation industry to search for an alternative.

Skeptics say that LightCraft are severely limited by the power of lasers, the small size of the craft and the tiny amounts of propellant they carry. "The propellant runs out before the LightCraft gets very far," Phil Coyle, a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank, told Wired.com. "It's sort of like trying to blow a paper airplane across the room with your own breath. You can give it a push with your first puff, but then the paper airplane is too far away and you can't blow enough air to keep it going."

Still, Myrabo appears optimistic: If his laser propulsion system is capable of at least in the short term launching satellites into low Earth orbit, he says, the technology could reduce the cost of orbital flight by a factor of 1,000.

Image © Lightcraft Technologies, Inc.

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