Pentagon Space Mission Aims to Test Laser Power Beaming in Space


Welcome to this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief… with the recent announcement by the Naval Research Laboratory that its innovative Space Wireless Energy Laser Link (SWELL) will soon embark on its early testing phase, this week we’ll be analyzing 1) the NRL’s SWELL experiment announcement, 2) what laser power beaming technology could help facilitate for future space missions, and 3) the benefits of wireless energy transfer both in space and on Earth.

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Quote of the Week

“The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result. He does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that of the planter – for the future. His duty is to lay the foundation for those who are to come, and point the way.”

– Nikola Tesla

Latest Stories: Ahead of this week’s analysis, a few of the big stories we’ve covered in recent days include our exclusive investigation into the “unseen killer” behind the mysterious deaths of dozens of cattle in Colorado late last year and what official documents obtained by The Debrief revealed. Elsewhere, our feature report on the DARPA-funded Electric Sky unveils how they are moving closer to making its innovative Whisper Beam power-beaming system a reality.

Podcasts: This week in podcasts from The Debrief, Stephanie Gerk and MJ Banias ask whether organoids dream of electric bandages and other mind-bending possibilities in the latest installment of The Debrief Weekly Report. Meanwhile over on The Micah Hanks Program this week, I spoke with Colorado Parks and Wildlife Northwest Regional Manager Travis Black for an in-depth look into the the potential causes behind Colorado’s mysterious cattle deaths last year. You can subscribe to all of The Debrief’s podcasts, including audio editions of Rebelliously Curious, by heading over to our Podcasts Page. 

Video News: Be sure to catch Chrissy Newton’s latest installment of Rebelliously Curious, where she sits down with CEO and Co-Founder of Electric Sky Robert Millman to discuss the “Whisper Beam” and the future of faster, cleaner, quieter, and more economical travel. You can also watch past episodes and other great content from The Debrief on our official YouTube Channel.

With that all behind us, it’s time to shift our focus over to the Naval Research Lab’s quest to bring wireless energy lasers into fruition for space missions, as well as for Earth-based applications.

A Wireless Energy Laser Heads Into Orbit

This week, the United States Naval Research Lab (NRL) announced its plans to deploy a new system that will allow it to use lasers to beam power in space.

The Space Wireless Energy Laser Link, or SWELL, will see its first demonstration in conjunction with a scheduled Pentagon Space Test Program H9 mission to the International Space Station which launched on March 15, according to an NRL news release.

laser power beaming
Detail of the electronic systems comprising the Space Wireless Energy Laser Link (SWELL) experiment, developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (Credit: NRL).

“SWELL is one of several experiments that will launch aboard the SpaceX Dragon cargo vehicle to the ISS for the yearlong mission to collect data during a laser power beaming link in space conditions,” The NRL statement said.

Power Beaming Possibilities

Sponsored by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition & Sustainment (OUSD (A&S)), the innovative power-beaming experiment will attempt to gauge the viability of using technology to beam power in space using lasers for various space missions and other applications, while also exploring ways the technology might also be useful in fighting energy-related problems on Earth.

The project has seen additional support from the Operational Energy Capability Improvement Fund (OECIF).

Paul Jaffe, Ph.D., SWELL’s Principal Investigator, called the initial rollout of the technology a “modest experiment,” but one which will allow the NRL to focus on ways the technology can be developed and used both for optimal power development and also to do so efficiently across the distances required for space.

“By employing laser transmitters and photovoltaic receivers,” Jaffe said, “power beaming links will be established that will pave the way for rapid, resilient, and flexible energy delivery systems.”

Energy Delivery through Laser Power Beaming

Using electromagnetic waves to deliver energy is beneficial for many reasons, primarily on account of the capability to transfer it almost instantaneously, as there isn’t any requirement for carrying mass.

According to project leaders, laser power beaming could become crucial in terms of being able to power future space missions, and the NRL’s current experiments aim to help facilitate that.

SWELL Program Manager Chris DePuma said the technology is “poised as a critical enabler for power distribution on the moon and elsewhere in space,” calling the demonstration the “next step” in bringing power beaming into use both for future space missions and also for applications on Earth.

Year One and Future Applications

Over the course of the next year, the initial SWELL experiment will allow NRL scientists to collect vital information on the performance of the technology’s hardware while in orbit, allowing the team to gauge the limits of its use in future operations.

laser power beaming
Christopher Depuma, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory electronics engineer, conducts a functional test of the laser power beaming link on the Space Wireless Energy Laser Link (SWELL) system (Credit: NRL).

One of the key benefits of the technology is that it will one day reduce the payloads required for launches by removing the necessity for carrying energy sources like fuel and batteries, as well as cables and wiring used to transfer energy in traditional electronics, thereby allowing additional space for other resources that future space mission will require.

In an NRL statement, Jaffe said that laser power beaming technologies like SWELL could perform similar functions on the ground, allowing the distribution of power in more efficient ways, and even may one day allow power collected from solar arrays in orbit to be sent back to Earth.

“SWELL is the next step into this new frontier,” Jaffe said.

That concludes this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief. You can read past editions of The Intelligence Brief at our website, or if you found this installment online, don’t forget to subscribe and get future email editions from us here. Also, if you have a tip or other information you’d like to send along directly to me, you can email me at micah [@] thedebrief [dot] org, or Tweet at me @MicahHanks.

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