NASA is currently investigating, but the gist of it isn't hard to grok. America's premiere space agency is purportedly examining the possibility of using beamed energy propulsion to launch spacecraft into orbit, and while we've seen objects lofted by mere beams before, using a laser to leave the atmosphere is a whole 'nother ballgame. The reasons are fairly obvious: a laser-based propulsion system would effectively nix the chance of an explosive chemical reaction taking place at launch, and it would "make possible a reusable single-stage rocket that has two to five times more payload space than conventional rockets, which would cut the cost of sending payloads into low-Earth orbit." We're told that the study should be concluded by March, but only heaven knows how long it'll be before we see any of this black magic used to launch rockets. Sadly, we can't expect any Moon missions to rely on lasers for at least 50 or so years, but we're guessing that timeline could be shortened dramatically if Sir Richard Branson were to get involved.
[Image courtesy of Jordin Kare]