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An Overview of the NASA Ames Millimeter-Wave Thermal Launch SystemThe Millimeter-Wave Thermal Launch System (MTLS) is a beamed-energy propulsion concept being designed at NASA Ames Research Center. This effort is in response to the NASA Office of the Chief Technologist s announcement of the Ride the Light program. Our objective is to produce a design that goes beyond the feasibility analysis level of previous studies and provides a solid foundation for low cost access to space. The MTLS is designed to place a 500 lb payload into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) two times a day. This frequent launch, small payload niche is well suited for the particular advantages and constraints of beamed-energy propulsion, and has the potential to drastically increase access to space by reducing the cost per kilogram of placing payloads into LEO. This paper summarizes the findings of the MTLS study. The chemical rocket engine is in principle a simple device. It acts by releasing the chemical energy stored in propellants such as hydrogen and oxygen through combustion, then converting that thermal energy into kinetic energy by expansion through a nozzle. As such, it is fundamentally limited by the energy released in combustion reactions and the molecular weight of the products of those reactions. The highest performing conventional propellant combination, liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, can produce vacuum specific impulses of around 450 seconds. The design space of current launch vehicles (which tend to be large, multi-stage, and expendable) are defined by these limitations. An entirely new approach may be necessary in order to enable future launch vehicles of radically improved capabilities. Beamed-energy propulsion (BEP) is an alternative approach that bypasses the energy limitations of chemical propulsion. Instead of relying on a chemical reaction as the energy source, it is supplied externally via a beam of electromagnetic energy produced on the ground. In the concept examined in the MTLS, this energy is absorbed by a heat exchanger which then transfers the energy to the propellant. This decouples the energy source from the working fluid, vastly expanding the design space. For example, a launch vehicle could use only water as propellant, making it very safe and easy to handle. However, the most commonly proposed way to take advantage of this decoupling is to use pure hydrogen as the working fluid, which enables specific impulses of around 800 seconds1 if the heat exchanger material can operate at 2200 K. With such a significantly increased Isp, it may be possible to build single-stage to orbit vehicles, with enough mass margins left over to permit lower cost fabrication techniques.
Document ID
Document Type
Conference Paper
Murakami, David
(NASA Ames Research Center Moffett Field, CA, United States)
Date Acquired
August 27, 2013
Publication Date
July 29, 2012
Subject Category
Spacecraft Propulsion And Power
Report/Patent Number
Meeting Information
Meeting: 48th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference and Exhibit
Location: Atlanta, GA
Country: United States
Start Date: July 29, 2012
End Date: August 1, 2012
Sponsors: American Inst. of Aeronautics and Astronautics, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Society of Automotive Engineers, Inc., American Society for Electrical Engineers
Funding Number(s)
Distribution Limits
Public Use Permitted.
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