Imagine spaceships being catapulted and caught in space using “gloves” of high-energy plasma beams.

That’s the vision of Robert Winglee, a professor at the University of Washington who is leading the team that’s pioneering the concept of the Mag-beam, or magnetized-beam plasma propulsion.

Winglee wants to incorporate plasma beam stations at each end of an interplanetary flight path to speed up and slow down a spacecraft.

The idea began receiving attention from NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts when the institute awarded $75,000 earlier this month to identify the challenges involved in implementing it.

Under the concept, a space-based outpost station would generate a high-energy plasma beam aimed at a spaceship equipped with a sail, resulting in it being thrust out into space. In the startup phase, the plasma station would direct bursts of plasma beams at the spaceship over a period of several days, refueling in the interim, to bring the spacecraft to the right speed required for its flight between the planets.

“Think of a system where large power units are placed permanently in orbit around critical regions of a planet,” said Winglee. “With a beamed plasma system, spacecrafts can be pushed or pulled to perform orbital transfers around the planet or accelerated to other planets at essentially no cost.”

Once shot off into space, onboard propulsion units would provide a spacecraft some power for minor flight corrections, but not enough to decelerate, which would be handled by a plasma station orbiting the destination.

The stations themselves would be fueled by nuclear power systems or solar-electric power systems augmented with fuel cells. By shifting the power source off the spacecraft and onto the station, Winglee hopes to gain an awesome level of speed.

Currently, rockets carry their propulsion systems on board, which means that the system not only has to move the spacecraft built around it, but it has to move itself, too. To ship a payload of 100 kilograms to Mars, scientists have to build a spacecraft many times that weight in order to support all the systems necessary to successfully deliver it. Since the propulsion system is using some of its energy to move itself, spaceships travel more slowly and can’t carry as much as they could otherwise.

More here.