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Power NASA Robotics Space Science Technology

$2 Million NASA Power Beaming Challenge Heating Up 98

Posted by timothy
from the when-moving-target-is-not-figurative dept.
carstene writes "Qualification rounds for the NASA Centennial Challenge Power beaming contest are underway at the Dryden Flight Research Center. The contest uses a scale model of a space elevator as a race track. Entrants must build a robot to climb a cable, suspended by helicopter, 1 km into the sky without any on board energy storage. The teams are using high power laser beams to transmit power from ground stations to photovoltaic arrays on the robots. If a team can accomplish this at 5 meters per second average speed then they could win up to 2 million dollars. One day this technology could be used to power rovers in shadowed areas of the moon or to recharge electric UAV's in-flight or even a space elevator in the far future. A blog of the event can be found here. Full disclosure: I'm a member of the LaserMotive team that you can follow on twitter, or or via blog."
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$2 Million NASA Power Beaming Challenge Heating Up

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  • Space elevator? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Jurily (900488) <jurily@gmail . c om> on Thursday July 23, 2009 @05:17PM (#28800405)

    Last I heard there were bigger problems with space elevators than the energy required to get up there.

    A circular geosynchronous orbit in the plane of the Earth's equator has a radius of approximately 42,164 km (from the center of the Earth). A satellite in such an orbit is at an altitude of approximately 35,786 km above mean sea level.

    • by FudRucker (866063) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @05:39PM (#28800657)
      what really sucks is when you're stuck between floors
    • Re:Space elevator? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by MozeeToby (1163751) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @05:40PM (#28800663)

      That's why I like the idea of a Launch Loop better (not that it doesn't have its issues too). It uses kinetic energy to maintain the structure rather than tension so it could in theory be built with modern materials. It also launches in minutes rather than the days, weeks, or even months that some space elevator designs call for. It would have a much higher launch capacity and is built on the ground rather than having to boost a cable into orbit. It doesn't require an anchor weight in high orbit and since the energy for launch is also transfered mechanically you don't have to worry about beaming power anywhere. Finally, it would act as a huge and efficient energy store, meaning we could, in theory, use 100% solar/wind power and use a launch loop as the worlds biggest battery for night time and cloudy days.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Launch_loop [wikipedia.org]

      • by ahem (174666)

        So what if the launch loop didn't have the turnarounds at each end? What if the two stations were near one of the poles instead of at the equator? You locate at a latitude just far enough away from the pole to make the circumference of a circular loop equal to 4000km. Then, instead of tossing the cable up in a straight line and have to turn it around at the other end, you toss it in the air, and the earth's rotation carries it around to the other station "halfway around the world", where it's launched up ag

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Last I heard there were bigger problems with space elevators than the energy required to get up there.

      A circular geosynchronous orbit in the plane of the Earth's equator has a radius of approximately 42,164 km (from the center of the Earth). A satellite in such an orbit is at an altitude of approximately 35,786 km above mean sea level.

      Yeah. Attacks by Vermicious Knids

    • Re:Space elevator? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Chris Burke (6130) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @05:45PM (#28800723) Homepage

      Well, you know, in a way, the huge distance by itself isn't that big a problem.

      The big problem is the material science, creating macro-scale nanotubes long enough to be woven into a cable or ribbon, and strong enough to support the ribbon itself plus whatever we want to lift. Last I heard (and I'm admittedly not following it closely at all) they could manufacture single nanotubes a meter long, and had nanotubes less than an order of magnitude from the desired tensile strength. But not at the same time. Still, it's promising, but there's a long way to go.

      Once you've solved the material science problem, and hopefully made large-scale manufacturing feasible if not cheap, then it's mostly a matter of motivation. Laying down and occasionally carving paths through the mountains for 75,000km of interstate probably sounded daunting, but it got done because there was a perceived need. Between the military uses and commercial uses, I think it would exist for the space elevator too. But it would probably be the DoD who would have the money to do it. With low cost to orbit, Project Thor would be an economical reality. That's my pitch. I'm sure we could add more. Of course we have time, though, because for now, large-scale manufacturing of carbon nanotube cables is still a dream, and thus so is the elevator. :)

      • by Jurily (900488)

        Laying down and occasionally carving paths through the mountains for 75,000km of interstate probably sounded daunting, but it got done because there was a perceived need.

        It got done eventually. Meanwhile the finished sections were already usable. A space elevator cable that's 1 km too short is useless.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Chris Burke (6130)

          It got done eventually. Meanwhile the finished sections were already usable. A space elevator cable that's 1 km too short is useless.

          You can still do the project in stages, just to a lesser degree. First you make a thin cable that is only useful for small payloads, which will include the next section of cable when its ready, and so on until you have your full-strength cable.

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by Engine (86689)
            Most of strength isn't needed for the payload but for the weight of the cable, so you gain very little by making a smaller payload elevator.
            • Re:Space elevator? (Score:4, Interesting)

              by Chris Burke (6130) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @06:52PM (#28801419) Homepage

              The point wasn't to reduce the tensile strength required; that material science problem still needs to be solved.

              The point was that once you have accomplished that and it's a matter of manufacturing and will, you can make use of smaller cables in stages while waiting for the full construction to finish, much like you could use portions of the interstate system before it was done. But instead of making roads that are full width, but not the full length needed, you're making ribbons that are full length but not full width.

              At least one substantial elevator proposal uses this approach.

    • by T Murphy (1054674)
      Material properties aside, it would be interesting to build a ring around the Earth. The net gravitational force on it would be zero (small variations may have to be accounted for), so it could float above the Earth with zero supports. You could build a series of them, allowing for shorter distances to be travelled at once, which gives you a lot more leeway on power, cable design and weight (mass I guess). Counterbalance the elevator and you won't pull the rings out of the sky.

      In the end it stays in the
      • by delt0r (999393)
        This configuration is unstable. It would need active station keeping in addition to magic materials.

        Or just have a large number of inter meshing satellites with there own station keeping *in* orbit...
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by MaWeiTao (908546)

      I recall reading, a few years ago, about a craft intended to lift payloads into orbit which operated by firing lasers at its underside which would ignite a fuel. I guess it's basically this [wikipedia.org].

      I'm all for research into all kinds of technologies but to me this almost sounds like a glorified Radio Shack kit; shine a flashlight at a robot to get it to roll around. If it's got photovoltaic cells why even bother with the lasers? Just make the thing solar powered. I suppose this method ensures more power for the rob

      • by carstene (267166)

        One of the founders of LaserMotive, Jordin Kare [wikipedia.org] is the originator of an idea for laser launch [wikipedia.org]. Its a very cool idea that seems very workable for putting small payloads into orbit by heating H gas in a heat exchanger on a rocket with a ground based laser.

        As far as why a laser and not solar? The laser is a lot brighter then the sun over the array of the PV array, and the PV array is allot more efficient at the lasers wavelength (color), so you can have a much more compact system. Besides this way you ca

      • I can see why they'd want to use lasers - how else are you going to focus the energy sufficiently from a distance of 1 or more kilometres?

        But why would they use lasers and PV cells when masers could be used instead? Highly directional radio antennas should be both simpler to build and waaaaayyyy more efficient, IMHO, and masers aren't any less efficient than lasers...

        • by Jordin (795817)
          Diffraction. Lasers have a wavelength of around 1 micron; the shortest-wavelength microwaves we can make at high power (using gyrotrons, incidentally; unlike lasers, masers are low power, and are now quite obsolete as microwave amplifiers) are around 2 millimeters, 2000 times longer. The antenna/telescope diameter is proportional to wavelength, and the aperture *area* (which is what costs money) is proportional to the wavelength *squared*.
      • by MrKaos (858439)

        about a craft intended to lift payloads into orbit which operated by firing lasers at its underside

        I'm wondering what power could be supplied to the lift-trains (for want of a better description) from orbit. I'd imagine there would be multiple options for powering the cars that are not earth centric.

        For example what about lift-trains falling *away* from earth and slowing their velocity beaming that power to trains that are *climbing*. Not all of the power needed to climb but then the climbing (climbers?)

  • Would microwave + rectifier work any better or worse? Just wondering, I seriously don't know.
    • How would that be more fun than powerful laser beams ? Go USST !!!
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by carstene (267166)

      The lasers are actually infrared and invisible. Ours is 808nm and is very slightly visible to some as a violet glow. For this use lasers are easier to work with then microwaves as they have a much smaller divergence so the transmitter can be much much smaller. For beaming microwaves over these distance you end up with a transmitter that does a fair imitation of a radio telescope.

      • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        The lasers are actually infrared and invisible. Ours is 808nm and is very slightly visible to some as a violet glow. For this use lasers are easier to work with then microwaves as they have a much smaller divergence so the transmitter can be much much smaller. For beaming microwaves over these distance you end up with a transmitter that does a fair imitation of a radio telescope.

        But at those distances, how can you possibly get the sharks to hold still enough to keep the beam focused?

        Moron.

      • by DrWho520 (655973)
        Are there other reasons besides beam divergence to use a laser to transmit power? Is the atmospheric transmission better (my guess is no) or energy conversion efficiency better for the laser than a microwave?
        • by carstene (267166)

          Beam divergence is the biggest reason I'm aware of. Another sizable reason is kilowatt for kilowatt an infrared laser is a lot cheaper. Diode lasers (especially infrared ones) have collapsed in price in the last few years.

      • by Chris Burke (6130)

        What about masers?

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by carstene (267166)

          Turns out that divergence is set by the wavelength, larger the wavelength the bigger the minimal divergence. Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diffraction-limited_system . Our lasers wavelength is 808 nanometers. Compare that to say 1 centimeter for microwave and you can see that microwaves will always require a much bigger "lens/mirror" to focus them.

  • Full Disclosure? (Score:1, Flamebait)

    by Facegarden (967477)

    Isn't "full disclosure" really just meant to say "Hey, FYI I might be biased"? Not, "Hey, I might be biased, now let me promote myself!".
    -Taylor

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by T Murphy (1054674)

      Isn't "full disclosure" really just meant to say "Hey, FYI I might be biased"? Not, "Hey, I might be biased, now let me promote myself!".

      He was just demonstrating his bias for full disclosure.

      To be serious though, he is providing relevent and interesting information. We wouldn't have much news if you can't tell anyone what you are doing for fear of seeming self-absorbed.

    • by osu-neko (2604)

      Isn't "full disclosure" really just meant to say "Hey, FYI I might be biased"? Not, "Hey, I might be biased, now let me promote myself!".

      No. In fact, your point is self contradictory. If it means the former, it necessarily includes the latter. It's not possible for the first thing you said it meant to be true while the second is false. Rather like it's impossible for a basket that contains five apples to not contain three apples. Just because you include more than the first thing doesn't mean you no longer include the first thing. If "full disclosure" means including a notice of how you might be biased, including that notice and saying

      • by sumdumass (711423)

        Exactly, Knowing someone is biased doesn't give you any information into how he might be biased. It's important because instead of reading everything as a skeptic, you could now just be skeptical about his team rocking while the others suxors.

        Here is a better example, A judge could potentially be biased because he has met the defendant before. Disclosing this isn't an automatic requirement for a recusal (judicial disqualification) because the disclosure could be that he saw the defendant at a charity dinner

      • Isn't "full disclosure" really just meant to say "Hey, FYI I might be biased"? Not, "Hey, I might be biased, now let me promote myself!".

        No. In fact, your point is self contradictory. If it means the former, it necessarily includes the latter. It's not possible for the first thing you said it meant to be true while the second is false. Rather like it's impossible for a basket that contains five apples to not contain three apples. Just because you include more than the first thing doesn't mean you no longer include the first thing. If "full disclosure" means including a notice of how you might be biased, including that notice and saying something else as well does not mean you failed to include the notice, so it's still "full disclosure".

        First of all, holy crap could you make that any more confusing? And thanks for explaining to me that a basket with 5 apples can't not have 3 apples in it - when you think someone is that wrong, maybe you should consider the possibility that you misunderstood them? People are rarely that dim.

        And it doesn't matter anyway, you completely missed my point. I never said what he did wasn't full disclosure, i was just suggesting that that the self promotion was unnecessary.

        -Taylor

  • by CompressedAir (682597) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @05:43PM (#28800699)

    NASA: "We'd like you to hover for a few hours dangling a cable."

    Pilot: "Boring!"

    NASA: "Oh, and several teams will be shooting lasers in your direction."

    Pilot: "Now you're talking!"

    • Re:Helicopter Pilot (Score:5, Informative)

      by Grishnakh (216268) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @07:03PM (#28801539)

      This is actually a pretty dangerous job for a helicopter pilot. If his engine fails (which does happen from time to time), he'll be unable to autorotate and will crash fatally. Just like fixed-wing airplanes, helicopters require forward motion to be able to recover from engine failures by gliding to the ground. For this reason, helicopter pilots generally try to avoid hovering unless they're just above the ground; takeoffs and landings are done with forward motion as much as possible.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        The scariest thing about this is being on the ground, next to the cable, hooking up a climber with a big Sikorsky S-58 above you. Ever see what happens when a cable under 800lbs of tension snaps? Think Amusement park nightmare.

      • by syousef (465911)

        Helicopters don't require forward motion to auto-rotate.

        • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          "Hovering at 20 to 50 feet puts you in the "deadman's curve" - it's a combination or airspeed (0 knots) and altitude (20 to 50 feet) at which a safe autorotation is not possible. So if the engine quits, you're dead."

          http://www.marialanger.com/2008/04/27/the-deadmans-curve/

          • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

            by Joren (312641)

            "Hovering at 20 to 50 feet puts you in the "deadman's curve" - it's a combination or airspeed (0 knots) and altitude (20 to 50 feet) at which a safe autorotation is not possible. So if the engine quits, you're dead."

            http://www.marialanger.com/2008/04/27/the-deadmans-curve/

            ...but we are talking about hovering at 1 km...

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by f0dder (570496)
      Wouldn't it be more cost effective to use a balloon for this sort of stuff?
  • That "full disclosure" sure is a sneaky way to promote yourself in the article!

  • by idontgno (624372) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @05:43PM (#28800707) Journal

    what brave soul wants to pilot the test helicopter anchoring the top of the beanstalk, while engineers of varying degrees of competence are aiming powerful directed energy beams at an object suspended a short distance below them.

    "Do not glance outside of cockpit with remaining eye."

    • by carstene (267166)

      I tend to think of the pilot as pretty brave too, but the contest organizers and NASA have gone to great lengths to make it as safe as possible. For example the helicopter actually hovers at about 1.3km and the lasers all aim in a direction where the helicopter should not be "illuminated". Furthermore while the lasers transmit many kilowatts of power, they are actually fairly spread out, over a square meter or so. They are an eye hazard, but there is no danger of cutting a hole in anything Goldfinger st

      • by Grishnakh (216268)

        That still doesn't account for the danger of an engine failure. If that happened, the pilot would not be able to recover as he has no forward motion.

        • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          sure he could

          • by idontgno (624372)

            Well, sure, the chopper would probably* autorotate down. And it will probably do so in some direction other than straight down. But if it did fall (relatively slowly) straight down, you can add the insult (or injury) of being painted by a high-energy laser ("AAAH, MY EYES! THE GOGGLES DO NOTHING!") to the injury (or severe injury) of a crash-landing.

            *There are a few catastrophic failure modes, such as spontaneous rotor system failure, in which autorotation isn't available. OTOH, in those failure modes, lase

  • I'm confident I can get much higher speeds than that out of a laser...

  • Could this be used in a surface to orbit strike cannon?

    We could use a defense from an alien armada, or a death star-esqe laser that we could use on other planets.

    • Surely you mean orbit-to-surface ?
      • No, a surface to orbit cannon aims from the planet outward.
        • My apologies, I was utterly confused there. I thought you were talking about putting this cannon on the end of a tether, thereby making it orbit to surface. I know realise that you were probably refering to the implications of the lasers, and not the tethering part, and that I am an idiot.
  • I didn't see on the site though, what day is the competition itself? I'd like to go out and watch it. (I work in a building right down from DFRC, on main base)
    • by carstene (267166)

      August 5-7th. All the action will be out on the lakebed in the "compass rose". Besides the web site you can also follow it on NASA tv.

  • Is there anything like a mechanical diode - like shark skin.. something that would ratchet the platform upwards in response to vibration in the cable?

    What about blimps? Vacuum filled(oxymoron alert) carbon nanotube spheres? What about something like aerogel but with a closed-cell structure that lacks air?

     

    • I think vacuum-filled tube spheres are a great idea. Get on that and report back how it goes.

      • by 7Prime (871679)

        Ummm, unfortunately, that only works for a few miles. Think about it for a second... why do we not send balloons into geosynchronous orbit?

        Might work on Venus though.

  • Wouldn't a two piston Sterling Engline designed such that it flipped itself over on each cycle be a much better energy down converter than solar cells? Even if your laser is tuned to the solar cell band gap, the amount of energy that you put into the power transfer is a fraction of what you would get as useful energy to the crawler. With a Sterling Engine you could just use mirrors to focus sunlight to power the device.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by carstene (267166)

      While the efficiency of a heat engine is great, the power to weight ratio is awful. So much in fact that it is really hard to build one that can lift itself.

      A laser that is matched to the bad gap of a pv cell can be over 50% efficient. So it is not too bad on that front and a lot less weight then a heat engine.

      By the way, a Sterling Engine is an engine made of silver, a Stirling Engine is a heat engine.

      • I've seen some pretty flimsy Stirling Engine implementations. Some even have foam pistons, but you are probably still right about the P/W ratio. I've never seen the flimsy ones do much more than turn. Attaining 5m/sec = 300m/min with an engine capable of turning at 1200 rpm would mean that the engine would have to be capable of lifting itself .25m =~ 8 inches per turn. This does not seem like an impossible number, but it doesn't sound easy either. It would probably be necessary to put it into motion at
        • by carstene (267166)

          A diode laser, like we are using is also about 50% efficient in turning electrons into photons, so under ideal conditions you get around 25% of the electricity out the other end that you put in. I will point out that you still have to heat the Stirling engine with something like a laser so it has exactly the same lose on that end as beaming to a PV does.

  • Step 1 - Find Blue Shark (Reliablely recorded at speed is 24.5 miles (39.4 kilometres or 11.1m/s) per hour over long period of time)
    Step 2 - Attach laser
    Step 3 - ???
    Step 4 - Profit .....
  • I'll supply the power over a single conductive cable 1 km long if you'll supply the robot to climb it. We can share the prize. I'm ready to demonstrate. To see how I do it see http://www.corridor.biz/FullArticle.pdf [corridor.biz] n6gn

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