The $3000-10,000/kg cost of getting things into space has been crippling what is possible in space. Any low cost system will also need to have a high volume purpose. I discuss the best system that would still involve chemical propulsion and laser and magnetic launch systems. The focus is on laser launch array systems (and mirror reflecting enhancement). I believe there is no technical roadblock for the laser array launch system being developed within 10 years. As with any significant project it would take a coordinated effort and funding.
Chemical rockets and incremental developments will take a long time to radically alter the cost equation for space as well as the volume of material that can be delivered into space. The best systems involving chemical propulsion would swap out the bottom stage with a magnetic boost and the top with either tethers (skyhooks) or magbeam. The chemical rockets would be made three times as efficient using hypersonic aircraft that took in oxygen from the atmosphere.
Scramjets are being actively studied but are unlikely to lead to the first working space launch system for 15-25 years. Then it would take longer to have frequent flights and scale up volume. (There was a pdf of a proposal for hypersonic project but it has been removed from the web. It had all of the project elements laid out and it would take about 25 years before scramjets were manned. The high volume economic motivation would be the $4 billion market for two hour package delivery around the world and that skiping a hypersonic passenger plane on the atmosphere would be twice as fuel efficient as current commercial jets.
Ultimately could achieve $100/kg. Might achieve $1000/kg to space at lower volume. Development costs and build up costs easily in the range of $100 billion to $1 trillion and taking 15-30 years to first system and 50 years to have scaled up infrastructure [unless nanotechnology is developed]
Starting with the laser array launch system
Proof of concept Scale model test vehicle for laser launch
Lasers in arrays could use cheap $7-10/watt lasers. This would allow full systems to be developed for about $2 billion. The first modules can be made at low risk
Each module would have the components above
Larger 67 kilowatt to 100 kilowatt systems are as pictured above
Laser photonic mirror system could launch things into orbit and could enhance the laser array launch system with mirrors to multiply efficiency by 1000 up to 100,000 times.
High volume magnetic launch (4000g) acceleration with ion propulsion at the top could bring launch costs down to $10/kg. High volume systems which have operational costs which are only the cost of electricity tend to converge to the $10/kg price. The laser launch and laser launch mirror systems also converge to those prices at high volume.
The high volume purpose should be space colonization and to tap into the resources of space.
Using magnetically inflated cable to capture solar energy in space
Larger 10 kilometer structures could generate 18GW, 15 times more than larger nuclear power plants
Structures such as solar power arrays and telescopes can avoid complicated construction using modular systems. Large structures can also be made with less complex construction using inflation (magnetic or gas).
Arrays of lasers for a cheaper yet powerful launch system and inflated components for large, inexpensive and high capability space power systems and telescopes.
Instead of $14-16 billion per year on the current limited NASA efforts. Build the non-chemical infrastructure over the next 10 years. The key is build a lot of power both for non-space program needs but also 20-50% dedicated to scaling up space infrastructure.
Gigawatts on the ground dedicated to launches. Situate near a nuclear reactor or large dam (much like Google is building server farms near cheap power). Also, choose cheap power that would be near an area requiring less power for launches.
Powering laser arrays. Mass produce the arrays.
Highly reusable power infrastructure on the ground and in space is the key.
As noted in the movie Apollo 13:
Gene! Gene! We gotta talk about power here, Gene.
– Whoa, whoa, guys!
Power is everything. Uh, power is everything.
– What do you mean?
– Without it, they don’t talk to us; they don’t correct their trajectory; they don’t turn the heat shield around.
Power to launch. Power to build.
Launch magnetically inflating structures for space solar power. Whatever, size can be launched and then have them hold formation to direct lots of power to localed power collection on the ground.
Scale up to build more power as fast as possible for the space program and for power needs on earth. Also, launch other reusable power and launch infrastructure that has a low ratio of electrical power to kinetic energy generated.
Modular and scalable is what makes the internet work so well. Government money helped develop, subsidize and prove out the modules and protocols for the internet. That is what is needed for space as well. Modular and scalable power and launch systems. Companies can come in and buy and build the launch and power modules.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
Known for identifying cutting edge technologies, he is currently a Co-Founder of a startup and fundraiser for high potential early-stage companies. He is the Head of Research for Allocations for deep technology investments and an Angel Investor at Space Angels.
A frequent speaker at corporations, he has been a TEDx speaker, a Singularity University speaker and guest at numerous interviews for radio and podcasts. He is open to public speaking and advising engagements.