A flourishing new space age.. and a big laser gun!



This article was originally published in the Bristol Post and written by Ashley Dove-Jay.


For space exploration, a lot of fascinating things have happened in the last few weeks.
After delivering its Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station, for the first time SpaceX retro-boost landed, on a ship out at sea, the 65m tall rocket that launched the spacecraft. The footage is spectacular. That rocket will be reused for another launch in July.


Reusing rockets makes space far more accessible to those that want to get there. Would you buy a car if you had to throw it away after using it once? That is what the space industry has faced, and is what has slowed our progress into space, until now.
On top of this, SpaceX announced that their rockets are far more capable than previously let on. Their Falcon 9 rocket can launch as much as the Space Shuttle did and their Falcon Heavy twice as much. SpaceX also announced that it’s going to land its seven-tonne human-rated Dragon spacecraft on Mars within the next few years. They have the technology. And they expect to land astronauts on Mars within the next decade.


We’ve heard this all before from NASA. Forty years ago, NASA said it’d land people on Mars in twenty years. Today, NASA still says it’s going to land people on Mars in twenty years. But SpaceX are not NASA.


And we have also seen start-ups that never make it because the Founder is too cautious to realise the true potential of their idea.


NASA kneels to a government that changes leadership and direction every four to eight years. SpaceX, a fast-moving private entity worth about £10 billion, was founded and is led by the tenacious Elon Musk who has his eyes set on colonising Mars. Given his transformative and almost Edison-like track record in the space, transportation, and energy sectors, people are taking him seriously.


Beyond Mars, another announcement was made by Stephen Hawking, Mark Zuckerberg and Yuri Milner among others. Under the name Breakthrough Starshot, £70 million has been set aside to launch a flock of hundreds of tiny spacecraft to our nearest neighbouring star system, Alpha Centauri.


These tiny spacecraft, weighing no more than a few grams each, will unfurl as large sails and be propelled to a speed of 134 million miles per hour by an array of powerful lasers on Earth. Yes, you read that correctly. They plan to fire a really big laser gun at tiny spacecraft to accelerate them through interstellar space to a fifth the speed of light in the direction of some neighbouring stars. This is not some far-in-the-future project. They plan on launching within several years.


What’s particularly exciting about this project is that these spacecraft will reach their destination twenty years after launch and will have cameras to take and hopefully send back pictures of the planets within the Alpha Centauri System.


Beyond the many technical and space environmental challenges associated with these spacecraft and the laser array, the biggest hurdle in my eyes is international policy. One does not simply stand up on the international stage and ask if it’d be alright to fire a 100 billion Watt laser gun into space; in-between the many thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth.


However, the Breakthrough Starshot project will be led by the former director of NASA’s largest centre, Pete Worden. Beyond anything, Pete was quite the diplomat at NASA. He was a front-burner for international collaboration and gutsy projects. There is probably no one better qualified to wade through such a political firestorm.


A decade ago, all of the above would have sounded like science fiction. But it is now actually happening. Technology is advancing ever more rapidly and is becoming ever cheaper. Unlike bureaucracy-laden governments, private industry is capable of swiftly responding to this pace change. We are now on the cusp of the flourishing of a new entrepreneurial space age. I am excited about our future, about the world my newborn son, Arlen, is coming into.


Ashley Dove-Jay has a PhD in aerospace engineering from the University of Bristol and is a space engineer at Oxford Space Systems with a broad background in the space arena.