Bae Institute demonstrates first photonic laser thruster

Dr. Young Bae of the Bae Institute in Tustin, Calif., has demonstrated a photonic laser thruster (PLT), reportedly bringing the concept of laser light-powered rockets closer to reality.

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By Courtney E. Howard

TUSTIN, Calif. - Dr. Young Bae of the Bae Institute in Tustin, Calif., has demonstrated a photonic laser thruster (PLT), reportedly bringing the concept of laser light-powered rockets closer to reality.

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. Using a photonic laser and photon-beam amplification system, Bae demonstrated that amplified thrust between two spacecraft can be achieved by bouncing photons thousands of times between them.

The patent-pending Bae PLT was built and monitored with commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) components at the Southern California laboratory of the Bae Institute. The PLT prototype’s egg-size laser head can generate thrust equivalent to that produced by industrial or weapons-grade lasers that are orders-of-magnitude larger and heavier.

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The photonic laser thruster prototype bounces photon particles between mirrors.
Click here to enlarge image

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.

Another of Bae’s innovations, the patent-pending photon tether formation flight (PTFF), is designed to harness the PLT system to control spacecraft flying in formation with nanometer precision. Bae expects PTFF to offer precision 100,000 times greater than that of today’s formation-flying spacecraft missions, such as the European Space Agency’s upcoming Proba-3, as well as to aid in the creation of large telescopes and synthetic apertures in space for Earth and space monitoring.

“In addition to conventional formation flying, fractionated space architectures can benefit tremendously from the versatility and flexibility of a tightly controlled PLT system,” Bae explains.

Dr. Franklin Mead, senior aerospace engineer and leading rocket scientist in laser and advanced propulsion at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., attended Bae’s PLT demonstration of photon thrust. “I don’t think anyone has done this before,” he says. “It has generated a lot of interest [at AFRL].”

The PLT project is funded by a Phase II NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts grant.

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