Sunday, November 8, 2009

Robots Powered Remotely By Lasers Will One Day Climb To Space

Robots Powered Remotely By Lasers Will Climb To Space:

Gravity sucks. Gravity especially sucks when you’re trying to get into orbit. It sucks because vehicles like the space shuttle expend most of their energy just hauling along the fuel they need to make it into orbit, instead of something useful like more payload or myself. Like, I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that the space shuttle could lift off with no trouble using just its main engines; the boosters are needed primarily to lift the external fuel tank. This is why Virgin Galactic launched SpaceShipOne from an airplane, why NASA is investigating launching satellites directly from high altitude balloons, and why an elevator to space that’s powered from the ground would be the best thing for spaceflight since Ham.

Freely admitting that they’re not up to the task of designing such an elevator (either the car or the tether, which has to be about 62,000 miles long), NASA has opened it up to everybody as part of their Centennial Challenges. This week, a bunch of different robots competed to climb a kilometer into the sky using only power transmitted from the ground by lasers so powerful that they have to turn them off when satellites fly overhead. The winner zipped up the tether at nearly 4 meters per second netting a prize of almost $1 million, which is pretty good, even though at that speed, it would take just under a year to make it into geosynchronous orbit. The point is, these robots don’t have to lift any fuel: with the engine on the ground, it’s all payload.


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