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Laser Propulsion Systems


Study on Application Capability of Laser Propulsion in a Space

Tech Area / Field

  • PHY-OPL/Optics and Lasers/Physics
  • SAT-EXP/Extraterrestrial Exploration/Space, Aircraft and Surface Transportation

8 Project completed

Registration date

Completion date

Senior Project Manager
Malakhov Yu I

Leading Institute
Research Institute for Complex Testing of Optoelectronic Devices (RICTOD), Russia, Leningrad reg., Sosnovy Bor

Supporting institutes

  • Russian Academy of Sciences / Physical Technical Institute, Russia, St Petersburg\nResearch Institute for Laser Physics, Russia, St Petersburg


  • Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) / West, USA, ID, Idaho Falls\nInstitute for Laser Technology, Japan, Osaka\nNational Aerospace Laboratory / Kakuda Research Center, Japan, Kakuda\nPhotonic Associates, США, NM, Santa Fe

Project summary

One of the promising ways of a spacecraft path control in near-Earth space is a propulsion created by the use of radiation energy of ground-based high-power lasers [1]. At present time, the main efforts of researchers are intent by the development of a laser pulsed detonation engine (LPDE) for acceleration of a vehicle in the atmosphere and injecting the vehicle into Low Earth Orbits. LPDE has several priorities in comparison with the conventional jet engines, first of all, there is no a necessity of a great storage of working gas on a board of the vehicle. The flights of a small-scale model of the laser-propelled lightcraft vehicle with the LPDE of 30-50-g in mass in the atmosphere have been successfully realized in demonstration experiments carried out in [2] recently.
Under the conditions that the vehicle can carry gas storage on a board, there is an opportunity to use the laser propulsion for accelerating the vehicle in the near-Earth space (the lightcraft concept developed by Japanese researchers [3]). However, the feasibility of the vehicle with the LPDE for space application will depend in many respects on solving such problems as generation of a thrust in vacuum conditions, efficiency of light energy transformation into the energy of blast waves as well as compensation for the atmosphere influence on efficiency and accuracy of the laser beam delivery to the vehicle, above all.
The project belongs to the applied researches oriented at the development of a concept of LPDE operating in vacuum conditions and techniques of a laser propulsion creation of spacecrafts with the LPDE as well as laser beam forming and pointing techniques for delivery the laser beam onto the spacecraft.
The following tasks are to be solved by the project implementation.
1. Conditions defining an efficient generation of a thrust in the LPDE are to be determined by optimization of laser pulse characteristics and the LPDE primary receptive optics parameters.
2. Numerical simulation of gas-dynamic processes affecting the laser-propelled lightcraft vehicle flight in the atmosphere and in orbital missions is to be conducted.
3. Computational and experimental tests of the Japanese concept of primary receptive optics (beam concentrator) of the lightcraft vehicle are to be carried out in a vacuum chamber.
4. Pointing/tracking algorithms providing a delivery of laser radiation to the vehicle with LPDE onboard are to be developed by the use of the techniques of compensation for optical distortions within a propagation path.
5. Beam forming techniques of laser pulse generation with the needed spatial-temporal characteristics are to be developed with the use of the coherent and non-linear optic means.
6. Wire-guided flight experiments on lifting a low-weight model of the vehicle with LPDE are to be carried out in outdoor conditions.
The implementation of the project will make possible to carry out the fundamental and applied researches for the laser-created propulsion in vacuum conditions, to obtain the input experimental data needed for spacecraft path control by the use of a laser propulsion as well as to determine the application capability of the proposed beam forming/pointing techniques of high-power laser radiation for generation of a maximal thrust in spacecraft onboard LPDE.
Theoretical and experimental experience accumulated by the project participants during the last decades in the field of laser physics, laser radiation interaction with the atmosphere as well as of linear and non-linear adaptive optics and particularly the experience acquired at work on ISTC Project 929 (Laser beam control by means on nonlinear and coherent optics techniques) allows starting the applied research aimed at the implementation of this promising concept of laser propulsion in a space in a foreseeable future.
During the project fulfillment, the project authors suppose to use the approaches and techniques that were used in earlier researches at RILP as well as those developed at RICTOD and were used for investigations of laser breakdown conditions of atmospheric gas [4]. The systematic basis of the simulations comprises numerical methods, algorithms, and software for numerical calculations of gas-dynamics equations with the use of adaptive structured and non-structured nets, which were developed by scientists from Joffe Institute for Applied Physics [5], as well as mathematical models, developed at the RILP and RICTOD for simulation of laser radiation interaction with a plasma originated by laser breakdown of gases (see [6], for the example).
Some aspects of high-power laser beam propagation in conditions of non-linear beam interaction with the atmosphere have been examined in the printed matter by the project participants carried out during latter years. In the paper [7], an analysis of influence of the principal atmospheric characteristics on the efficiency of CO2 laser radiation delivery to a remote object at various season conditions was reported.
Original adaptive algorithm increasing the efficiency of high-power radiation delivery through the turbulent atmosphere by the use of phase conjugation and simplified adaptive techniques (the so-called
"bright speckle" algorithm) was proposed by researchers from the RILP recently [8]. In the RICTOD [9], the algorithm was experimentally tested with the use of a repetitively pulsed CO2 laser at a laboratory-scale atmospheric range of 200 m in length.
To conduct the vehicle flight experiments, a CO2 laser is supposed to be used as a laser radiation source due to a lower threshold of the laser breakdown of air as compared with that for the Nd-laser, the CO2 laser capability of operating in a repetitively pulsed mode at a high level of output average power that can be achieved, weaker influence of atmospheric processes on the CO2 laser beam parameters as well as opportunity of using the CO2 laser radiation for "bleaching" the atmospheric range at bad weather conditions. To obtain the comparative experimental data on the laser-created thrust, some of the planned experiments will be carried out with the use of pulsed Nd - lasers.
For solving of the tasks mentioned above the following laser equipment existing in RICTOD and RILP is supposed to be used: a repetitively pulsed CO2 laser operating at a repetition rate of 200 Hz and average output radiation power of 30 kW; a repetitively pulsed CO2 laser operating with an average output power up to 0.5 kW, a number of pulsed CO2 and Nd lasers with different output peak power, pulse energies, and pulse duration. The special experimental facility incorporating cryogenic vacuum chambers with pumped out volume of 15 - 150 m3, which allow simulating a process of a thrust generation at space conditions, are developed in RICTOD.
The total duration of the investigations – 3 years, the project comprises three stages.
The objective of the first stage is experimental and theoretical simulations of a laser-created propulsion in LPDE based on a detonation mechanism of the thrust creation. The principal purpose of the second stage is the simulation of modes of LPDE operation in void of air conditions (in a vacuum chamber), which includes computer calculations of a propulsion creation in LPDE with a gas storage on a board of the vehicle and basic experiments on creation of the LPDE maximal thrust in space conditions (in a vacuum chamber). The main task of the third stage is the demonstration experiment on lifting a low-weight model of the vehicle with LPDE along a wire at an altitude of 40-50 m in the atmospheric near the laboratory building.
At the final step of the project, proposals are formulated aimed at further development of laser propulsion technology for development of space-born lightcraft vehicles with the LPDE.
This project providing weapons scientists and engineers in the Russia, particularly those who possess knowledge and skills related to weapons, opportunities to redirect their talents to peaceful activities, promoting integration of Russian scientists into the international scientific community; supporting applied research directed on the creation of ecology safe methods of thrust creation.
Consistent with the scope of activities of the project proposal as described above, specify the scope of cooperation with a foreign institution: information exchange and cross-checks of results in the course of project implementation, participation in technical monitoring of project activities performed by ISTC staff, conduction of joint seminars and workshops.


1. V.P. Ageev, F.I. Barchukov, F.V. Bunkin, and et al. Laser-jet engine. Russian Journal of Quantum Electronics, vol.4, No 12, 1977, pp. 2501-2513.
2. Leik M. Myrabo, Donald G. Messit, Franklin B. Mead, Jr. Ground and flight tests of a laser propelled vehicle. AIAA Paper No 98-1001, 1998.
3. Y. Tsujikawa, K. Imasaki, M. Niino, et al. Japanese activity on the laser application in space. Proceedings of AHPLA'99, Osaka (Japan), November 1-5, 1999.

Papers published by the project participants:

4. V.P. Savelyeva. Optical forming systems for long laser spark generation. Journal of Optical Technology, vol. 66, No 3, 1999, pp. 54-57
5. Yu.P.Golovachov. Numerical Simulation of Viscous Shock Layer Flows. Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995, 345 p.
6. A.A.Andreev, K.Yu.Platonov, G.-C.Gauther. Skin effect in strongly inhomogeneous laser plasma with weakly anisotropic temperature distribution. Phys. Rev. A, v.58, ╣2, p. 2424, 1998.
7. A.A. Ageichik, I.M. Belousova, D.A. Goryachkin and et al. Effects of atmospheric factors on delivery of repetitively pulsed CO2 laser radiation through near-land atmospheric ranges. Journal of Optical Technology, vol. 66, No 11, 1999, pp. 931-928.
8. V.E Sherstobitov, V.I. Kuprenyuk, D.A. Goryachkin, et al. Experimental verification of a bright-speckle algorithm of compensation for turbulent wandering of a repetitively-pulsed CO2 laser beam. Proceedings of SPIE, vol. 3647, 1999.
9. A.A. Ageichik, M.P. Bogdanov, V.V. Valuev, and et al. Model experiments on deliver stabilization of repetitively pulsed CO2 laser radiation into remote receiver at optical distortions within beam pass. Journal of Optical Technology, vol. 66, No 11, 1999, pp. 945-953.


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