Laser-Activated Rescue Thrusters For Astronauts

Imagine that you are an astronaut on an untethered EVA, and you've lost consciousness. Although you have a thruster pack, you need to be awake to use it. What can be done?

John Sinko, an engineer now at Ohio State University in Newark and Clifford Schlecht at the Institute for Materials, Energetics and Complexity in Greenville, South Carolina are working on a prototype.

In Sinko's original plan, spacecraft carry thrusters with two types of propellant, each responding to a different laser wavelength. To fire a thruster, a laser beam is shone on it, vaporising propellant to create thrust and so push the spacecraft onto a new course. The propellants fire in different directions, so the spacecraft can be steered.

Existing rescue systems - spring-loaded or gas-driven tethers that can be fired towards an astronaut - can't reach more than 100 metres. And astronauts venturing outside the International Space Station must wear a jet pack of nitrogen thrusters. But none of these safety measures can help an astronaut who is incapacitated. The tractor beam would.

Sinko and Schlecht's calculations suggest their technique will work. By pulsing a carbon-dioxide laser on a 1-kilogram thruster for 200 seconds, they reckon they can move an astronaut back towards safety at 1 metre per second (Journal of Propulsion and Power, vol 27, p 1114).

As far as I know, the notion of a remotely-triggered rescue system is a unique idea. The idea of having a way to move around while on a spacewalk has been around for more than one hundred years. In his 1898 story Edison's Conquest of Mars, the intrepid (and fictional) Mr. Edison solves the problem of untethered spacewalks.

Mr. Edison's way of guarding against the danger was by contriving a little apparatus, modeled after that which was the governing force of the electrical ships themselves, and which, being enclosed in the air-tight suits, enabled their wearers to manipulate the electrical charge upon them in such a way that they could make excursions from the cars into open space like steam launches from a ship, going and returning at their will.
(Read more about the electrical 'tether')

Robert Heinlein offered a more practical alternative in his 1948 novel Space Cadet.

"The trick to jetting yourself in space,"—he went on, 'lies in balancing your body on the jet—the thrust has to pass through your center of gravity. If you miss and don't correct it quickly, you start to spin, waste your fuel, and have the devil's own time stopping your spin. "It's no harder than balancing a walking stick on your finger—but the first time you try it, it seems hard..."

He squatted down, lifted himself on his hands, and very cautiously broke his boots loose from the side, then steadied himself on a cadet within reach. He turned and stretched out, so that he floated with his back to the ship, arms and legs extended. His rocket jet stuck straight back at the ship from the small of his back; his sight stuck out from his helmet in the opposite direction...
(Read more about Heinlein's personal rocket jet)

From New Scientist; thanks to Winchell Chung, who has more information on Rocket Packs on his site Project Rho.

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