Do the laser thermal concepts we discussed earlier this week have an interstellar future? To find out, applications closer to home will have to be tested and deployed as the technology evolves. Today we look at the work of Andrew Higgins and team at McGill University (Montreal), whose concept of a Mars mission using these methods is much in the news. Dr. Higgins is a professor of Mechanical Engineering at the university, where he teaches courses in the discipline of thermofluids. He has 30 years of experience in shock wave experimentation and modeling, with applications to advanced aerospace propulsion and fusion energy. His background includes a PhD (’96) and MS (’93) in Aeronautics and Astronautics from the University of Washington, Seattle, and a BS (’91) in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering from the University of Illinois in Urbana/Champaign. Today’s article is the first of two.
by Andrew Higgins
Directed energy propulsion continues to be the most plausible, near-term method by which we might send a probe to the closest stars, with the laser-driven lightsail being the Plan A for most interstellar enthusiasts. Before we use an enormous laser to send a probe to the stars, exploring the applications of directed energy propulsion within the solar system is of interest as an intermediate step.
Ironically, the pandemic that descended on the world in the spring of 2020 provided my research group at McGill University the stimulus to do just this. As we were locked out of our lab for the summer due to covid restrictions, our group decided to turn our attention to the mission design applications of the phased-array laser technology being developed by Philip Lubin’s group at UC Santa Barbara and elsewhere that has formed the basis of the Breakthrough Starshot initiative. If a 10-km-diameter laser array could push a 1-m lightsail to 30% the speed of light, what could we do in our solar system with a smaller, 10-m-diameter laser array based on Earth?
Image: Laser-thermal propulsion vehicle capable of delivering payload to the surface of Mars in 45 days.
For lower velocity missions within the solar system, coupling the laser to the spacecraft via a reaction mass (i.e., propellant) is a more efficient way to use the delivered power than reflecting it off a lightsail. Reflecting light only transfers a tiny bit of the photon’s energy to the spacecraft, but absorbing the photon’s energy and putting it into a reaction mass results in greater energy transfer.
This approach works well, at least until the spacecraft velocity greatly exceeds the exhaust velocity of the propellant; whenever using propellant, we are still under the tyranny of the rocket equation. Using laser-power to accelerate reaction mass carried onboard the spacecraft cannot get us to the stars, but for getting around the solar system, it will work just fine.
One approach to using an Earth-based laser is to employ a photovoltaic array onboard the spacecraft to convert the delivered laser power into electricity and then use it to power electric propulsion. Essentially, the idea here is to use a solar panel to power electric propulsion such as an ion engine (similar to the Deep Space 1 and Dawn spacecraft), but with the solar panel tuned to the laser wavelength for greater efficiency. This approach has been explored under a NIAC study by John Brophy at JPL  and by a collaboration between Lubin’s group at UCSB and Todd Sheerin and Elaine Petro at MIT . The results of their studies look promising: Electric propulsion for spaceflight has always been power-constrained, so using directed energy could enable electric propulsion to achieve its full potential and realize high delta-V missions.
Image: Laser-electric propulsion, explored as part of a NIAC study by JPL in 2017. Image source: https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/niac/2017_Phase_I_Phase_II/Propulsion_Architecture_for_Interstellar_Precursor_Missions/
There are some limits to laser-electric propulsion, however. Photovoltaics are temperature sensitive and are thus limited by how much laser flux you can put onto them. The Sheerin et al. study of laser-electric propulsion used a conservative limit for the flux on the photovoltaics to the equivalent of 10 “suns”. This flux, combined with the better efficiency of photovoltaics that could be optimized to the wavelength of the laser, would increase the power generated by more than an order of magnitude in comparison to solar-electric propulsion, but a phase-array laser has the potential to deliver much greater power. Also, since electric propulsion has to run for weeks in order to build up a significant velocity change, the laser array would need to be large—in order to maintain focus on the ever receding spacecraft—and likely several sites would need to be built around the world or perhaps even situated in space to provide continuous power.
I had spent my sabbatical with Philip Lubin’s group in Santa Barbara in 2018 and was fortunate to be an enthusiastic fly-on-the-wall as the laser-electric propulsion concept was being developed but—being an old-time gasdynamicist—there was not much I could contribute. There is another approach to laser-powered propulsion, however, that I thought was worth a look and suited to my group’s skill set: laser-thermal propulsion. Essentially, the laser is used to heat propellant that is expanded out of a traditional nozzle, i.e., a giant steam kettle in space. The laser flux only interacts with a mirror on board the spacecraft to focus the laser through a window and into the propellant heating chamber, and these components can withstand much greater fluxes, in principle, up to the equivalent of tens of thousands of suns. The greater power that can be delivered results in greater thrust, so a more intense propulsive maneuver can be performed nearer to Earth. The closer to Earth the propulsive burn is, the smaller the laser array needs to be in order to keep the beam focused on the spacecraft, making it more feasible as a near-term demonstration of directed energy propulsion. The challenge is that the laser fluxes are intense and do not lend themselves to benchtop testing; could we come up with a design that could feasibly handle the extreme flux?
Our effort was led by Emmanuel Duplay, our “Chief Designer,” who happens to be a gifted graphic artist and whose work graces the final design. We also had Zhuo Fan Bao on our team, who had just finished his undergraduate honors thesis at McGill on modelling the laser-induced ionization and absorption by the hydrogen propellant—the physics that was at the heart of the laser-thermal propulsion concept . Heading into the lab to measure the predictions of Zhuo Fan’s thesis research was our plan for the summer of 2020, but when the pandemic dropped, we pivoted to the mission design aspects of the concept instead. Together with the rest of our team of undergraduate students—all working remotely via Zoom, Slack, Notion, and all the other tools that we learned to adopt through the summer of 2020—we dove into the detailed design.
Image: McGill Interstellar Flight Experimental Research Group meeting-up in person for the first time on Mont Royal in Montreal, during the early days of the pandemic, summer 2020.
Our design team benefitted greatly from prior work on both laser-thermal propulsion and gas-core nuclear thermal rockets done in the 1970s. Laser-thermal propulsion is well-trodden ground, going back to the seminal study by Arthur Kantrowitz , who is my academic great grandfather of sorts. In the 1970s, the plan was to use gasdynamic lasers—imagine using an F-1 rocket engine to pump a gas laser—operating at the 10-micron wavelength of carbon dioxide. With the biggest optical elements people could conceive of at the time—a lens about a meter in diameter—combined with this longer wavelength, laser propulsion would be limited to Earth-to-space launch or low Earth orbit. To the first order, the range a laser can reach is given by the diameter of the lens times the diameter of the receiver, all divided by the wavelength of laser light. So, targeting a 10-m diameter receiver, you can only beam a CO2 laser about a thousand kilometers. The megawatt class lasers that were conceived at the time were not really up to the job of powering Earth-to-orbit launchers, which typically require gigawatts of power. For many years, Jordin Kare kept the laser-thermal space-launch concept alive by exploring how small a laser-driven launch vehicle could be made. By the 1980s, most studies focused on using laser-thermal rockets for orbit transfer from LEO, an application that requires lower power.
Image: Concept for a laser-thermal rocket from the early 1980s, using a 10-micron-wavelength CO2 laser. Image Source: Kemp, Physical Sciences Incorporated (1982).
As a personal footnote, I was fixated with laser-thermal propulsion in the 1980s as an undergraduate aerospace engineering student studying Kantrowitz and Kare’s work and, in 1991, visited all of the universities that had worked on laser propulsion, hoping I could do research in this field as a graduate student. I was told by the experts—politely but firmly—that the concept was dying or at least on pause; with the end of the Cold War, who was going to fund the development of the multi-megawatt lasers needed?
The recent emergence of inexpensive, fiber-optic lasers that could be combined in a phased array changed this picture and—thirty years later—I could finally come back to the concept that had been kicking around the back of my mind. The fact that fiber optic lasers operate at 1 micron (rather than 10 microns) and could be assembled as an array 10-m in effective optical diameter means they could reach a hundred times further into space than previously considered. Greater power, shorter wavelength, and bigger optical diameter might multiply together as a win–win–win combination and open up the possibility to rapid transit in the solar system.
The other prior literature we greatly benefitted from is gas-core nuclear thermal rockets. Unlike classic, solid-core NERVA rockets that are limited by the materials that make up the heating chamber, gas core nuclear thermal rockets contain the fissile material as plasma in the center of the heating chamber that does not come into contact with the walls. Work on this concept progressed in the 1960s and early 1970s, and studies concluded that containing temperatures of 50,000 K should be feasible. The literature on this topic is extensive, but Winchell Chung’s Atomic Rockets website provides a good introduction . Work from the early 1970s concluded specific impulses exceeding 3000 s were achievable, but leakage of fissile material and its products from the gas core were both a performance limiting issue and an environmental nonstarter for use near Earth. But what if we could create the same conditions in the gas core using a laser, without loss of uranium or radioactive waste to worry about? The heat transfer and wall cooling issues between gas core NTR and the laser-thermal rocket neatly overlap, so we could adopt many of the strategies previously developed to contain these temperatures while keeping the walls of our heating chamber cool.
Image: Gas-core nuclear thermal rocket. Image source: Rom, Nuclear-Rocket Propulsion, (NASA, 1968).
Laser-thermal propulsion is sometimes called the poor person’s nuclear thermal rocket. Given its lack of radioactive materials and associated issues, I would argue that laser-thermal propulsion is rather the enlightened person’s nuclear rocket.
With this stage set, in the next installment, we will take a closer look at the final results of our Mars-in-45-day mission design study.
1. John Brophy et al., A Breakthrough Propulsion Architecture for Interstellar Precursor Missions, NIAC Final Report (2018)
2. Sheerin, Todd F., Elaine Petro, Kelley Winters, Paulo Lozano, and Philip Lubin. “Fast Solar System transportation with electric propulsion powered by directed energy.” Acta Astronautica (2021).
3. Bao, Zhuo Fan and Andrew J. Higgins. “Two-Dimensional Simulation of Laser Thermal Propulsion Heating Chamber” AIAA Propulsion and Energy 2020 Forum (2020).
4. Arthur Kantrowitz, “Propulsion to Orbit by Ground-Based Lasers,” Astronautics and Aeronautics (1972).
5. Leonard H. Caveny, editor, Orbit-Raising and Maneuvering Propulsion: Research Status and Needs (AIAA, 1984).