Thursday, July 25, 2024

Promethean Space – The Next War Frontier

by Mirza Rizwan

Strategy document of Colorado Space Command of US released in June 2020 considers ‘Space’ a distinct war-fighting domain. The preparedness for such future war can be understood with the reorganization of Russian Space Forces on 1 August 2015 with the sole motive of space warfare. China also established the ‘People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Strategic Force’ on 31 December 2015 to enhance the PLA’s power projection capabilities in space and cyberspace, and this was under the first wave of the Chinese Military Reforms. 

These developments could have resulted in the signing of the ‘US Space Force Act’ by President Donald Trump on 20 December 2019, as part of the National Defence Authorization Act, whereby the United States Space Force has been crafted out as a new independent military service from the US Air Force and world’s first independent space force. Outer space has become integral to human lives and of strategic security importance.

Spacecraft or satellites are a vital part of the nation’s infrastructure and critical cyber significance to support terrestrial military and intelligence operations. Any deliberate aggression or even unintentional interference with enemy satellites could spark or escalate the conflict in space with repercussions on earth. The strategic advantage of outer space is that it does not belong to any nation and can deliver surprise elements of high speed and extreme target precision in case of any conflict. The fastest fighter jet in service can attain a top speed of approximately 3500 kmph, but an ‘orbital jet’ can deliver the same punch at a speed of roughly 27000 kmph. 

With the launch of Sputnik on 4 October 1957, by the erstwhile USSR, the first space race came to a head. It ran till the late 1990s between two superpowers (the US & the erstwhile USSR) seeking to establish geo-political dominance in the Cold War era. The race achieved its geo-political objectives with restricted access to outer space by highly trained astronauts and cosmonauts. However, the second space race, which began with the successful space flight of ‘SpaceShipOne’ in 2004, will be between competing private companies seeking to establish low-cost access to space for ordinary people. 

The second space race, driven by the size and growth of the travel and tourism industry, promises to open up access to space to millions of space tourists; it continues to accelerate the entry of new corporate giants with innovative ideas and concepts, thus enhancing the significance of the outer space from a defence cost centre to space exploration or space tourism profit centre.

Second Space Race

The remarkable element of the second space race is that outer space is in the process of change from an era of exploration to an age of settlement. We see private players like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic in the race of launching commercial spacecraft and astronauts in space. One of the most remarkable achievements of SpaceX is the ‘Inspiration4 Mission’ in which four minimally trained non-astronaut civilians were launched and entered the earth’s orbit, stayed there for three days, and landed safely with everything being controlled from the earth.

The Promethean Space

Space mining or mining asteroids and other minor planets for their valuable raw materials may become a reality. The technology will eventually enable us to exploit the rich resources of the asteroids in the solar system, and it is increasingly being developed by a variety of companies. ‘SpaceHub’ will evolve out of ‘International Space Station’ as a base for reusing parts launched from the earth for all satellites or spacecraft towards completed missions. ‘Intelligent infrastructure system’ of SpaceHub will detect failures in advance and automatically repair them, promoting space automation or autonomous maintenance, creating a recycling-oriented society that does not depend on the ground earth. 

A new economic zone will evolve, and life in space will be ordinary. Regular flights to the moon and Mars will be in service, and humans will fly out into a wider space. The classic example is Elon Musk’s SpaceX, established to reduce costs for space transportation to enable self-sustaining colonization of ten lakhs humans on the planet Mars.

However, I foresee these predictions in a different context – the second space race will also revolutionize travel here on earth. A flight from New York to Singapore covers a distance of 15348 km in 18 hours 40 minutes. Can this distance be travelled in under one hour? I predict that space technology and innovation are heading towards that. Consider the situation where travellers sit on a rocket and in a couple of minutes enter into earth’s orbit and in approximately 90 minutes cover one circle of the earth or half the circle of the earth in about 45 minutes. 

Once it is halfway across the earth, it re-enters into its atmosphere and lands safely at a pre-determined location, thus travelling from one part of the earth to halfway across within one hour. Yes, we have proven technologies for a successful launch, orbital entry, re-entry into the atmosphere and precision landing for decades now. So, what could be the challenge for this new mode of travel to come into reality? The answer is just the ‘cost’.

Although reusable rockets have drastically reduced the launch cost, the cost is still not practically viable for business travel. Therefore, I see that the space industry will spend the next couple of years innovating, trial and implementing the systems to launch projectiles and humans in outer space and the earth orbit at a fractional cost. Here, I would like to mention a concept known as a mass accelerator, a kinetic energy space launch system that is an alternative to combustion rockets. 

The space Startup SpinLaunch conducted the first launch test of its Suborbital Accelerator for the first time this November. The success of this vertical test is a crucial stepping stone towards creating the company’s proposed Orbital Launch System (OLS), which will conduct regular payload launches soon. It’s just a matter of time before the technology can be strengthened to launch the projectile into earth’s orbit. 

At this juncture, I would also like to mention two patent-pending innovations designed to launch a payload into earth’s orbit at almost zero or fractional cost. Both innovations are applauded and awarded by none other than NASA and, as I write this, are currently being evaluated by US Federal agencies and an ‘Innovation of National Security Importance’, on the recommendation of the United States patent office. I am fortunate enough to be a co-inventor and the research team leader who made these innovations at the DiscoverSTEM Innovation Lab we have established in Texas, USA. 

One of these is a ‘Deep-sea pressure base launch system’ in which the extremely high pressure of the deep sea is used to propel a piston in a long barrel. The payload is loaded on a piston, which gains very high speed for a zero-cost launch. Another innovation that received worldwide first prize at an international innovation contest conducted by NASA is ‘Relay-based launch system’. 

This system consists of a series of large floating geostationary platforms with a catcher arm and electromagnetic guns to launch, catch and relaunch a payload. So, these series of these ‘relay’ floating platforms will launch the payload up to approximately 40 km high, roughly the distance the first stage rocket takes, thus eliminating the need for first stage rockets in a launch. I hope these innovations will be tried and tested one day to cut the cost of space launches drastically and make travel through earth’s orbit fast and cost-effective.


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