As far back as the 1960s, aerospace engineer John Bloomer published on the idea of using an external laser as the energy source for a rocket, using the incoming beam to fire up an onboard electrical propulsion system. And it was in a 1971 speech that Arthur Kantrowitz, looking toward the technologies that would succeed chemical rockets, suggested using lasers to heat a propellant within a rocket. This is laser-thermal propulsion, in which hydrogen (the assumed propellant) is heated to produce an exhaust stream. The hybrid method would be studied extensively in the 1970s.
So when Al Jackson and Daniel Whitmire took up the idea in a 1978 paper, they were in tune with an area that had already provoked some research interest. But Jackson and Whitmire had ideas that would refine the ramjet design introduced by Robert Bussard. They were pondering ways to power a starship, one that would carry its own reaction mass. Uneasy about the core Bussard design, the duo had, the year before, published on the idea of using a laser to augment the ramjet. Bussard sought to ignite fusion in reaction mass gathered by a magnetic ramscoop, gathering its own fuel as it roamed the galaxy. It was a dazzling idea, but problems had soon become apparent.
Image: Al Jackson, whose laser-powered ramjet and laser-powered interstellar rocket concepts, developed with Daniel Whitmire, refined the Bussard ramjet design and illustrated its shortcomings.
For the Bussard design, as we’ve seen not long ago in Peter Schattschneider work with Jackson (see John Ford Fishback and the Leonara Christine), runs into serious problems, including igniting the proton/proton fusion reaction Bussard advocated. We would go on to learn that the vast magnetic ramscoop of the ramjet generates far too much drag to be practical.
So Jackson and Whitmire proceeded first to come up with a laser-augmented ramjet that applied beamed energy from a transmitting installation in the Solar System, one that would interact with hydrogen collected by the starship ramscoop. They then turned their attention to beaming energy to a craft that operated using its own reaction mass rather than mass drawn from the interstellar medium.
It’s that latter idea that has the most resonance. Robert Forward in this period had been talking about beaming laser energy to space sails. Now the laser idea goes into the service of a hybrid propulsion concept that loses at least one Bussard showstopper. I’ve described Jackson and Whitmire’s idea in the past as ‘rocketry on a beam of light.’ It’s an ingenious solution, even if it does not permit us to leave the propellant behind.
Image: Daniel Whitmire, collaborator with Al Jackson on the laser-powered interstellar ramjet and rocket concepts, and author of important work on Carbon Nitrogen Oxygen cycle (CNO) fusion possibilities for the ramjet. Credit: University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
And it’s this ‘laser-powered rocket,’ as opposed to a ramjet, that should get more attention in the community than it has, given that subsequent studies of the interstellar medium have cast doubt on how even the most efficient ramscoop could collect enough reaction mass given variations in the distribution of hydrogen in the galaxy. In other words, you might have to get up to relativistic speeds in the first place just to ignite a ramjet, if indeed it could be ignited, and you would have to reckon with varying supplies of interstellar material along the way. Poul Anderson’s wonderful take on the interstellar ramjet in Tau Zero (1970) becomes highly problematic!
The laser-powered interstellar rocket contains the added advantage of being able to accelerate not only away from the laser beam but towards it, for the beam is conceived purely as an energy source, not a source of momentum. This has immediate benefits in mission planning. One of the great challenges of interstellar flight is that once you’ve managed to get your craft up to relativistic speeds, you’d like to do more upon arrival at destination than simply blitz through a planetary system at 20 percent of c. The laser-powered interstellar rocket, however, operates efficiently in both acceleration and deceleration phases. No need for Robert Forward’s ‘staged sails’ when using this take on a starship, or for the deployment of a magnetic sail as a brake.
Image: Laser-thermal propelled spacecraft in Earth orbit awaiting its departure. Credit: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
The history of interstellar studies has involved conceiving of ideas that do not break physics and then probing them to find out whether they work. Like the original Bussard ramjet and so many of Robert Forward’s ideas, Jackson and Whitmire’s concept is highly futuristic, but I love what Al said in a reminiscence on the matter in these pages: “The importance is in showing that the physics allows an opening for the engineering physics. There is no exotic physics here, only – so to speak – exotic technology.”
I sometimes forget how venerable some of these ideas are, for even while Jackson and Whitmire were doing their work on laser beaming variants to adapt the Bussard design, George Marx had already published a paper in Nature in 1966 with the provocative title “Interstellar Vehicle Propelled by Terrestrial Laser Beam.” Laser lightsails were under active discussion, and now there was a laser rocket. We have had half a century to ponder these ideas, and I see that another variant on beaming power to a spacecraft with onboard fuel has just emerged. While it’s a system advocated for fast transit to Mars, it plays upon motifs that can turn interstellar.
In a paper appearing in Acta Astronautica, lead author Emmanuel Duplay (McGill University, Montreal) and colleagues take a near-term look at what such methods can achieve. But they also give a nod to interstellar prospects, pointing out that trends like the emergence of inexpensive fiber-optic laser amplifiers and the possibility of phase-locking large arrays of such amplifiers to operate as a single element are now under active study. Moreover, adaptive optics methods can smooth beam distortions if moving through the atmosphere, allowing such an array to beam energy to a spacecraft from the surface of the Earth. Long-term, a space-based array offers huge advantages, but deep space missions do not depend on this.
Indeed, the new work responds to a recent NASA solicitation looking for propulsion concepts for rapid interplanetary missions capable of making the Earth-Mars crossing in no more than 45 days, and reaching a distance of 5 AU in no more than a year, or 40 AU (in the realm of Pluto/Charon) in no more than five years. As Mars is a feasible target for human crews in the not distant future, such a capability would mitigate the risk to astronauts of exposure to galactic cosmic rays and dangerous solar activity.
I’m intrigued by the idea that beamed propulsion can become a major factor in creating a system-wide infrastructure, one that will along the way develop the needed technologies for missions to another star. So in the next two posts, I want to turn things over to Andrew Higgins (McGill University), who is at the heart of the work in Montreal. Rapid transport to Mars is the baseline design here, but it’s a metric that not only allows us to compare competing propulsion methods but also look ahead to the deep space missions it enables.
The Jackson and Whitmire paper is “Laser Powered Interstellar Rocket,” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Vol. 31 (1978), pp.335-337. The Bloomer paper is “The Alpha Centauri Probe,” in Proceedings of the 17th International Astronautical Congress (Propulsion and Re-entry), Gordon and Breach. Philadelphia (1967), pp. 225-232. The paper we’ll look at next is Duplay et al, “Design of a rapid transit to Mars mission using laser-thermal propulsion,” Acta Astronautica Volume 192 (March 2022), pp. 143-156 (abstract / preprint).