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NASA: Beam me up some power, Scotty

Space boffins want to drive future craft by RAYGUN

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NASA boffins are looking into making a science-fiction staple - the idea of transmitting power to spacecraft using lasers or microwaves - into reality.

Sending enough energy to replace commonly-used present day space propulsion via laser beam would be quite a feat. One of the most powerful lasers in the world that's capable of keeping a beam going for any length of time - Boeing's Airborne Laser Test Bed - can put out only a few megawatts of juice, but (according to El Reg's back-of-a-pint-coaster calculations) it takes about 190 gigawatts to power the first stage of a Saturn V rocket and 4.1GW to make a single Delta IV core rocket go.

But NASA is undeterred and, after giving the project the snazzy name of Ride the Light, has dished out around $3 million to a number of companies to investigate using beamed power by lasers and microwave energy.

The agency said in its statement:

This project will attempt to develop a low-cost, modular power beaming capability and explore multiple technologies to function as receiving elements of the beamed power.

This combination of technologies could be applied to space propulsion, performance and endurance of un-piloted aerial vehicles or ground-to-ground power beaming applications. Development of such capabilities fulfills NASA's strategic goal of developing high-payoff technology and enabling missions otherwise unachievable with today's technology.

Not content with riding the light, NASA has also handed over approximately $710,000 to US firm Amprius to help it develop a prototype battery that will work well in the extremely low temperatures of space. The company will look at manipulating both the silicon anodes and the electrolyte formulation to get the battery juicing up in the cold.

The financing for both products is being made through NASA's Game Changing Development Program, which looks for revolutionary technology for future missions. ®

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