Although humans have been sending objects into orbit for almost 60 years now, such launches are still among the most expensive things in the world to do. The average space shuttle launch was $1.5 billion, and NASA’s new Space Launch System currently will still cost an estimated $500 million per launch. The problem, of course, is that we’re using heavy rockets that break up in the atmosphere or become lost in orbit (which is exactly why Elon Musk and company are trying to make reusable rockets a thing, with no success thus far).
Companies like Escape Dynamics are working on even more radical ways of getting spacecraft into and out of orbit. Rather than using rockets, this company wants to use microwaves to beam ships up into space.
It’s a crazy idea, and here’s why it could — possibly — work one day.
Escape Dynamics proposes installing a hydrogen tank on a spacecraft and focusing powerful microwave emitters in its direction. Here’s how it works: The microwaves heat the craft, which heats the hydrogen, which reaches an explosive point where it can fire out the back of the ship and thrust the craft into the air till it reaches its destination.
If it works, it would be a much cheaper way of propelling a spacecraft into orbit than conventional rockets. Here’s a demonstration of what this looks like at a much smaller scale:
Of course, there are plenty of things that need to be worked out before you could do this. For one, the emitters have to be really, really focused so that other materials in the vicinity aren’t fried to hell by excess microwaves. It’s still not clear how energy efficient this is, so while it would be cheaper than rockets, how many money we’d save is unknown.
Regardless, NASA and other space agencies around the world would no longer have to worry about building rockets, storing fuel, and dealing with some of the very fine details which, if they’re not up to snuff, result in disaster.
Escape Dynamics wants to first see if they can use microwaves to power engines on the ground, and then they’ll attempt to power drone flights. If all of that works well, they hope to send a small satellite into space in just five years.