Experimental rocket engine to collect beamed microwave energy to heat propellants to plasma temperatures.
Credit: Penn State

The use of beamed microwave energy to launch space vehicles off the surface of Earth is getting a fresh look.

Penn State College of Engineering has been awarded funds to develop and use a facility over three years to study the concept. The Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) is backing the work.

Two awards

According to a Penn State press statement: The funding consists of two separate awards, with the first being $396,865 provided by the Defense University Research Instrumentation Program, which funds large-scale equipment acquisition by universities. This award will be used to acquire a five-foot diameter by eight-foot-long high-vacuum chamber to simulate both high altitudes and the space environment.

The funding also provides for the acquisition of a high-power microwave source and related microwave and optical diagnostic equipment.

The second award of $426,913 from AFOSR is to utilize the facility to examine the feasibility of beaming microwave power to a space vehicle, where it is focused to heat either an on-board propellant or ingested surrounding air to create a plasma with temperatures higher than can be achieved with current chemical propulsion methods.

Experimental site

“Since the microwave source is located on the ground and not on the space vehicle, it is powered by the commercial electrical grid, allowing a large amount of energy to be transmitted to the space vehicle without any weight penalty for the vehicle,” the Penn State statement explains.

Experiments will also be conducted at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where a multimillion-dollar 100-kilowatt, 95-gigahertz microwave source is located.

“If this concept proves viable, it has the potential to drastically reduce the cost of placing spacecraft into Earth’s orbit, something which has both governmental and commercial applications,” said Michael Micci, professor of aerospace engineering at Penn State.

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