jettison the fuel!

When you’re flying in a jumbo jet, do you ever think about how much of the plane’s holding capacity is devoted to carrying fuel? A team of researchers from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards, Calif., and the University of Alabama have thought about it quite a bit, and have come up with a way to eliminate aircraft from carrying fuel altogether. They have developed a model airplane that is powered and kept aloft by a laser beam delivered from the ground — no onboard fuel required. Tracking the aircraft in flight, the beam is directed to specially designed photovoltaic cells onboard, which power the plane’s propeller. Robert Burdine, Marshall’s laser project manager, said that “the craft could be kept flying as long as the energy source, in this case the laser beam, is uninterrupted.” So far, the technology has powered only a small, radio-controlled model airplane that was tested indoors, but hopes are high for its potential use in surveillance and telecommunications. “This is the first time that we know of that a plane has been powered only by the energy of laser light,” Burdine said. “It really is a ground-breaking development for aviation.”

This news brief appeared in the Random Data column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 10/21/2003.
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