Fishing for asteroids while reaching for the stars

Ideas of going into space have been a dream of many for a long time. Notions of space travel appear in European literature during the 1800s in the verging genre of science fiction. However in the 20th Century, rocket spaceship travel took off in literature with the publication of pulp fiction magazines, and comics. Public imagination was captured and by the 1950s some dared to dream that space travel is possible. With rocket knowledge being limited to a few, private companies started to make a push for space in Britain and USA; Russia’s space programme was state sponsored.

After the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, the United States Government was energised towards the space race. The then British government did not pursue an astronaut space programme, or help British enthusiasts and rocket engineers to establish a national programme. Successive British Governments from the 1960s until 2011 held back from pursuing national space policy, although throughout this period, government space interest existed in space research, European Space Agency involvement and unmanned commercial interests, mostly in engineering satellites and components.

So why are individuals and businesses not encouraged, helped and championed to create businesses for a British-based astronaut programme? Protectionism of certain industries and policies by government at the cost of paying higher taxes, or favouritism for one business venture over another are part of the problem. As is red tape and bad policy decisions by governments: historically the evidence sits before us. One is reminded of this from “This Sceptred Isle, Gladstone’s First Budget,” (Episode 187/216).

With the British Chancellor of the Exchequer’s budget announcement on 21st April 2012, the top rate of income tax will be reduced from 50p to 45p in the pound in April 2013. If the top rate remains at 50p, that 5p could be used to invest in scientific and technological research and development centres, fund innovation and provide infrastructure for a wide range of scientific endeavours. Britain would have a greater competitive edge against the emerging scientific and technological markets of China and India. Knowledge clusters could be built in the UK to promote hi-tech industries, innovation and space exploration.

Protectionism in itself is not inherently bad, choices on what to protect can make a positive outcome. With globalisation, mass communication, information dissemination, and global corporations, some good can come in the form of philanthropy. This can be seen with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Globalisation combined with scientific knowledge and its application in the form of technology and especially information technology, has allowed individuals around the world to break orthodoxy, think of impossible things, and think globally on how to find solutions to some of the world’s problems.

With the recent success of SpaceX ferrying items to the International Space Station, the news of Virgin Galactic‘s space flights and the future proposed moon flights by Excalibur Almaz, interest in space flight has been ignited once again. However with all the recent excitement and success of SpaceX’s first mission to the ISS, one cannot help but feel that many government policies, not only in Britain, but also in the USA, Russia and beyond, are acting like a damp squib, stifling innovation, ideas and dreams of many, compounded with nay-sayers, while pouring an inky mess on progress (or should that be damp squid). This can be exemplified with the struggle engineer Alan Bond has experienced with the Sabre engine and Skylon project.

However the nay-sayers are not just confined to governments, policy makers and think-tank institutions. While many of us live through space exploration in the realms of science fiction and fantasy, there are those who dare to challenge the current orthodoxy that space is too dangerous to venture into, costs too much money and takes 20 – 30 years for a project from conception to actualisation. This has been the existing dogma of space projects, where governments kept tight control of what can be done. However a small number of the new super-rich, many from globally successful IT companies, are confounding past conservative attitudes and notions on space exploration.

These radical thinkers believe that impossible things can be achieved, and achieved not in a 30 year time scale, but in a relatively short period, costing one-tenth or less than existing space administrations spend on space endeavours. A new space race is about to start with commercial enterprises pushing into the frontiers of space. There be a lot of money in them rocks: with the April 2012 public launch of company Planetary Resources, space mining has lifted itself from the pages of science fiction to fact. There are lots of resources obtainable in near Earth objects in the form of asteroids, from platinum, iron, helium, gold, frozen water, through to rare earth metals.

Planetary Resources, composing of mostly ex-NASA scientists, aims to be mining within 10 years, initially using robots. One problem that needs to be overcome is engine fuel. While one will be able to get robotic craft to an asteroid to mine, and utilise solar energy to power mining equipment, getting those mined resources back is going to be a challenge. However I believe that this is something that is achievable by thinking outside of the box, and I have ideas for future propulsion systems that I am working towards patenting. Planetary Resources plan to use elements and compounds, such as ice on asteroids, as fuel sources; this is a good practical approach for solar system exploration.

Launch costs can be reduced by using different materials from the 20th Century conventional manufacture process of space craft. Also with a robotic crew, one can reduce costs further. Thinking differently about getting into space is also needed. Burt Rutan has thought outside the box by using composites for SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo, which are launched from an aeroplane rather than from a ground based rocket system. This sort of thinking is leading to a revolution for space travel.

I believe that it is possible to have a moon base in 10 years time, and a habitation base on Mars by 2035. Governments can help by reducing taxes for start-up businesses which are entering into the space entrepreneurial domain, provide infrastructure, and aid in promoting space ventures through their space agencies. However reducing red tape and unnecessary legislation is also a necessity. I believe Planetary Resources to be the first of many to enter into the space mining race; this exclusive club is set to expand in the not too distant future. Mining in space is basically on a first come, first serve basis, and it is all up for grabs. There is no ownership of rocks in space, as co-founder of Planetary Resources Eric Anderson said:

“Yeah, if you go out into the ocean and go fishing nobody says they own all the fish in the ocean. If you build a boat and go out and catch a fish, you own it.”

I propose that we challenge the British Government to invest and support the UK Space industry, by building the necessary infrastructure and also creating thousands of new jobs in a PPP funded space industry to journey to Mars by 2035. Mining asteroids for resources is more than achievable within 10 years; it is harder to get to the bottom of the ocean at its greatest depths than going into space. There are challenges that need to be over come, but most of these can be swept away by removing nay-sayers and negative thinkers; we have most of the scientific and technological understanding now to meet these challenges, and humanity’s knowledge base is growing exponentially.

Designing an FTL-like spaceship propulsion system is not impossible nor highly improbable. Burt Rutan’s October 2006 TED talk is not only inspiring, but also exemplifies his genius. Rutan not only dares to think outside of the box, but also is a leading and pioneering aerospace engineer. Many nay-sayers believe that one could only get into space from an expensive ground based rocket, Rutan believed differently and has proven so. I believe it is possible to invent an engine that will transport a spaceship to Mars (and back to Earth safely) in a 30 – 90 day period, rather than taking between 150 – 300 days when the Earth is in opposition to Mars, every 2 years. Such near-FTL-like technology many seem like science fiction, but is something achievable within the next 20 years, by using a modified Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) engine. I believe that almost-FTL-like propulsion capable of travelling to Mars (and back) within 3 minutes is also possible within the next 50 years, should humanity have the drive to create such technology. After all, space can be ‘warped’ by not only strong gravitational fields, but also by strong magnetism.

Those who build the modern space-based fishing fleets, will reap the rewards. However I believe that such benefits could be distributed to all of planet Earth’s citizens; there are many more problems to solve. Of course not all people are interested in space exploration, or being the first nation to step on Mars. However for those who what to think big, and believe that technology with new ideas and materials can be created not just in the pages of a science fiction or fantasy novels, but can be materialised into real engineered machines, the rewards will be fulfilling.

For most of us, we can still gaze at the stars and dream of a future better, brighter and more fantastic than what we currently live in. It is time to rekindle that Dan Dare spirit.


Gedankenexperiment on engineering a time-machine

A question worth considering is: has anyone thought about creating a time machine based on a particle accelerator? Pushing matter about a cyclotron like at the LHC, could create time-dilation for matter (like a neutron), as it is being flung around in a circular path near the speed of light. It should be noted that matter will not reach or exceed the speed of light.

Prof. Ronald Mallett‘s theoretical research shows that light and not just matter could effect gravity. Professor Mallett has proposed creating a machine which circulates laser beams to create space-time dragging for an elementary particle. Creating a ring of light, in a cyclotron-like machine will create a gravitational drag effect, this will be noticeable for small elementary particles, such as a neutron [Footnote 1]. However the machine will not have an effect on any other matter outside of the apparatus itself. The function of time-dragging will operate within the local reference frame of the matter trapped within a cyclotron stream. This does not make a time machine for an external observer, but will create time dilation effect on matter caught in the light-stream’s drag.

So how does one make a time-machine? Understanding space (space-time) is an important part of this puzzle. Just as matter can’t break the light barrier, neither can matter reach a temperature of absolute zero. So what else can one do? Create a massive gravitational body, engineer a magnetar using a stellar-manipulator, possibly, but technology to create this is theoretical, and most likely won’t be feasible for hundreds, thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years. There are however other more practical solutions which we could use to build a working time machine in the 21st century.

Where matter exists, such as within galaxies, whether that matter consists of stars, planets, asteroids, etc., we know that the space between planetary objects is being held ‘in-place’ and shaped by those objects within the local galaxy. We assume that space which exists within atoms at the quantum level, though to space about-us on our planet, and space outside our planet’s atmosphere within the Earth’s Solar System, and space between other stars within our galaxy “The Milky Way” as with the space within other galaxies, and the space between these galaxies, interstellar space, is all made up of the same space stuff.

In the future we may learn that interstellar space maybe different from space within galaxies which is shaped by matter, Einstein’s space-time. On the other hand, it may prove to be the same space stuff. Then there is dark matter and dark energy. We know that within interstellar space, the “big” space between galaxies is expanding, this is where dark energy comes in, and galaxies are flying apart from one another (Redshift Distance Law of galaxies); as discovered by Edwin Hubble circa 1929.

So assume (hopefully not making an ass of one’s self) that space is made of the same stuff, no matter where it is within the cosmos. We know that space and time are linked, where matter curves or warps space, generating gravity and therefore shaping space-time. We also observe space expanding faster than predicted by existing theoretical models, possibly caused by space being a negative pressure to matter’s positive pressure (Einstein’s “biggest blunder” – the cosmological constant).

One conclusion we can be certain of, is that our current understanding, or state of knowledge, is missing more pieces of this puzzle. We know a lot more than we did, but there is still a lot to learn; dark matter and dark energy demonstrate this. However for our day-to-day lives, such as placing satellites into orbit about the Earth, our existing theories work very well. Therefore one can assume that for all practical purposes, our current theories on matter and light demonstrate that photons themselves can warp space, act as a positive pressure to the negative pressure of space.

Lets throw into this melting pot another idea or thought-experiment. Neutron Stars are strange creatures which have squeezed out almost all of the empty space between them, leaving a densely packed mass of neutrons squashed together, with a strong magnetic field [Footnote 2]. Pulsars are neutron stars which spin rapidly radiating a stream of electromagnetic radiation, such as gamma-rays or x-rays into deep space like a light-house on a coastal shore.

A Magnetar is a neutron star which generates very strong magnetic fields, far stronger than a ‘standard’ neutron star. This special property enables a magnetar to eject gamma-rays and x-rays into interstellar space. A magnetar’s magnetic fields are so strong that any matter-based object getting too close, would be stripped down to raw components, i.e., to atomic or sub-atomic level. Magnetars not only produce the strongest known magnetic fields, but also strange space-time warping effects; this is no coincidence.

Quasars are very active galactic centres which emit jets of electromagnetic radiation and plasma, thought to be powered by a black-hole. So what has this all to do with space and time travel? By observing the universe we can learn a lot. If we could fly in a fast space-ship to distant stars and galaxies, we could use strange stellar objects like magnetars as time machines; however this is currently beyond our existing technology. Although there is a limit to the speed a space-ship can attain, there is no limit to which the speed of space can move.

Understanding what space is, is key to understanding how to travel vast distances through space or time, freely forwards and backwards. So how does one make space move, apart from creating massive gravitational bodies like neutron stars, magnetars or black-holes? And once learnt how to make space move, how does one make space move faster than the speed of light?

One could say that space itself is a form of energy. Space itself contains vast amounts of energy at the Planck level, which can be utilised by force carriers or can be used to create more space fabric. The vacuum energy of space, Zero-point energy can be observed indirectly through the Casimir effect.

Matter which warps space-time, follows the laws of mass-energy equivalence. Mass-energy equivalence acts as a barrier for all Hadronic and Fermionic matter, where mass itself (not for the particle force carriers, such as photons for electromagnetic radiation, as with visible light), cannot travel faster than the speed of light; there will never be enough energy within a system to travel faster than light using conventional methods, such as a rocket space-ship.

Under the right conditions, matter in various forms and their force carriers can warp space so much, that time can be slowed down to a crawl or reversed in direction by being captured into a loop (a closed time-like curve). Space could be compressed (warped) and dragged towards matter making the distance to travel small, thus beating other photon carriers at their own speed race, which have to travel along the longer path of uncompressed space-time. Travelling faster than an uncompressed photon can be achieved by many means, from fast travelling rocket ships through to extreme warping of space using gravity or magnetism. If one could create a pocket-sized neutron star, or magnetar, then one would have an engine to power an ultimate warp-ship or time-machine.

Putting aside making a pocket sized magnetar with the current existing technology we have, a modified particle accelerator could be used to create a basic time machine, albeit one which only allows backwards travel until the machine was turned on. So how would one go about creating a “transference module” like a TARDIS without its inner dimensions, a “vortex manipulator” or the time-traveller’s time-machine?

I believe that Prof. Ronald Mallett is on the right track [Footnote 3]. Although Prof. Mallett’s theoretical machine is designed to carry subatomic particles, such as a neutron, or information, there is no reason it could not be scaled-up to also carry larger clumps of matter, like a capsule containing a person. However the restriction of not being able to travel to before this time machine was turned on would apply.

So how would one escape the restriction of not being able to travel to before this time machine was turned on? The solution is simple, but maybe complicated in its practical application. Think of boxes within boxes, as exemplified by refrigeration and Maxwell’s Daemon. By constructing a time machine which has its mechanics exposed to a world reference frame, only matter within the light-stream would be effected. However if one could encapsulate the time machine’s mechanisms so that the machine and its occupants exist sealed off from the external universe, creating a box within a box so to speak, then this self contained mechanism would enable the occupant to travel unrestricted to before the machine was turned on. Such a mechanism could be powered by water and steam generating electrical, magnetic and electromagnetic radiation as required to power the machine’s time engine. Alternatively in the future, a pocket fusion engine could fulfil such a power source role.

Notions for a time machine as visualised in “The Time Machine” (2002 film, Simon Wells director) are possibly closer to a working model than many may realise. The time traveller, protagonist Dr. Alexander Hartdegen, invents a machine which captures the machine and occupant inside a bubble of time, made out of light sealing in the occupant (light frame dragging), able to transverse backwards or forwards in time within a fixed spatial reference frame. As we move forward in time, we also move in space, not just our walking about, but or planet, solar system, galaxy, cluster of galaxies, all move within space-time; this idea I discuss at some length in an article I wrote for spatial coordinates and time-travel published to USENET in 1995.

I propose the following Gedankenexperiment, an invention and innovation on previous ideas, what if… what if one adds to the ‘bubble of light’ electrical energy from a tesla coil and magnetic fields? Thinking about the mechanics of creating a compressed light field, one would need either to use Bose-Einstein condensate conditions to slow light, or meta-materials. Fresnel lens mechanisms would be constructed to function two fold, like a series of mirrors, while also slowing down light through their meta-material construction. These Fresnel lenses can be used to focus the generated light into a sphere, or series of spheres rotating in different directions, which merge and intersect to make a large light-sphere or spheres. The light being produced is from a combined cathode ray, microwave cavity and ‘pure’ light source which is fed into the light sphere. Strong magnetic fields generated about the machine also help to contain and twist the light/matter (sphere) stream. I don’t want to give too much away, but this should be a good foundation to start from, and there are always… possibilities.

Footnote 1: It has been observed that muons can slow down their ageing process from micro-seconds and expand their age for about 10-11 seconds, when they smash into the Earth’s atmosphere with great velocity.

Footnote 2: Magnetism is part of the electromagnetic force; electricity and magnetism work together. Without the electromagnetic force, and more specifically electrical particles, electrons, matter as we know it would not exist. Atoms are generally made out of three sub-components: protons, neutrons and electrons, with the exception of hydrogen. Atoms also have isotopes, additional neutrons. Within atoms, electrons orbit protons and neutrons (nucleon) with a lot of space between the nucleon and the electrons. While the contents (quarks) of a proton or neutron is held together by the (strong) nuclear force, atoms and molecules are held together by the electromagnetic force. And just to muddy the waters a little, when a neutron goes through beta-decay, it produces a proton, electron and an electron antineutrino.

Footnote 3: For further information on Prof. Ronald Mallett’s time travel research, please see the following articles:

Spooky interaction and spongy space

While reading an excerpt from “How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival [Excerpt]” from Scientific American, I again started pondering on spooky-interaction.

Einstein saw a problem with quantum spooky-interaction at a distance, i.e., quantum entanglement. An observer can’t measure neither position or speed (momentum) accurately (noncommutativity) at the same time, because we are outside the reference frame or system of an individual particle being measured; outside the looking glass so to speak, existing within our own snow shaker (reference frame). Although we are made of lots of elementary particles, collectively they work as their own system, within a larger framework of another system.

Just as we can’t see outside our observable Universe or inside a black-hole, the same fuzz occurs with an individual elementary particle because we are not part of that system, which exists in a different phased space from what we exist within. We see a shadow or ghost of that individual particle and we appear reflected to the observed particle’s true nature also as a shadow or ghost.

Within quantum mechanics an elementary particle is said to have spin; that is spin direction. Wolfgang Pauli first proposed the concept of spin, who later formulated a mathematical theory in 1927. Quantum mechanics uses two types of angular momentum: orbital angular momentum and spin. So why is spin important? Spin has no direct analogous classical mechanical equivalent, however quantum mechanical spin does contain information about direction.

Elementary particles have no measurable internal structure, and therefore no common centre to rotate about, unlike a solar system. The spin of an elementary particle is an inherent physical property of that individual elementary particle, which is analogous to electrical charge and rest mass of the elementary particle. The value of an elementary particle’s spin quantum number can be a non-negative integer or a fraction, such as 0, ½, 1, 3/2, 2, etc.

This is where things get really interesting with quantum mechanical spin. The system of measurement used to describe a spin vector, will determine the amount of rotation that is required to see the elementary particle as it was originally measured. So if one rotates a spin-½ particle by 360 degrees, the elementary particle will not display the same quantum characteristics as originally measured, the spin-½ particle has to turned a further 360 degrees to return it back to its original measured state.

Electrons need to be turned through 720 degrees to be measured with the same electrical charge and position, this is somewhat analogous to gravity acting like a mirror on the structure of space-time. Within geometric-scape of space-time, we see a shadow of an individual particle, that exists within its own spatial reference frame inside of Einstein space-time, a reflective copy mirrored by gravity. We do not exist as part of an elementary particle’s internal reference-frame, however elementary particles exist within our reference frames as more than just shadows and ghosts.

This is one possible explanation as to why elementary particles interact differently and why we cannot measure both position and or momentum accurately. I am now going to bolster the ingredients to this gedankenexperiment to make a sponge, well spongy space. Postulate the following: Cracks between the spaces.

Maybe space-time is like a honeycomb sponge, where certain particles can pass through, such as neutrinos, depending upon space-time’s configuration. An elementary particle while in wave form may stretch through cracks like entangled string. However when observed, it ‘slows down’ to reveal its shadow properties. As elementary particles clump together to form atoms, cells, plants, animals planets and stars, a collection of matter becomes too large to pass through space-time’s sieve-like honeycomb sponge structure.

After all, if gravity acts like a mirror, could this space-scape reflect, hide and shadow the true nature of elementary particles? George Musser, Scientific American, 2 February 2012 describes the problem as:

“it is not just any old force, but a reflection of the structure of space-time, on which all else depends”.

A possible experiment could be confirmed by building scientific apparatus to test the sponginess of space-time. Take a particle that rotates, (not spin as in electrical charge, but rather has angular momentum) or an atom like caesium so its decay can be measured as a clock. Place this atom into an interferometer at very a cold temperature (near absolute zero) inside a totally reflective sphere, with a very strong rotating magnetic field surrounding. Outside the sphere is a rotating electrical field ‘spinning about’, lets see what results this produces for measuring quantum gravity.

If the wave function collapses with an entangled atom, it should produce a measurable change to the total energy of the system inside the apparatus. Of course this experiment could be closer to science fiction than physics.

Space flight: It’s not all rocket science – pt2

So towards the end of April 2012, several space based headline grabbing stories were published through media outlets: A new British rocket engine (Skylon), asteroid space mining backed by Google (Planetary Resources) and a robotic trip to Saturn’s moon Titan.

Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, with director James Cameron, engineers, scientists and astronauts Chris Lewicki, Tom Jones, Eric Anderson, Peter H. Diamandis, along with other venture capital investors have teamed together to form Planetary Resources. Their mission is to capture asteroids to mine, and use their resources in space, as well as back here on Earth. This idea sounds more like the plot line to a space science fiction opera, however Planetary Resources’ mission is to be fully operational in mining asteroids within 10 years time.

How do they aim to achieve this feat? In short, robot satellite exploration of asteroid rocks, to net and bring close to Earth for mining, taking resources to the Moon and ‘shuttling’ back to Earth. To get these satellites into orbit, private space travel enterprises will be used. Currently there is nothing that can fulfil this task commercially. However in a few years, and possibly within a year or two, there will be private rocket spaceships and high altitude shuttle rides regularly available from SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and others licensed for commercial use. SpaceX recently (May 2012) achieved a milestone with a successful launch of the Falcon rocket supplying the ISS and returning safely to Earth.

There is another ‘rocket’ type technology in the offering. Skylon picks up from the shelved British HOTOL (Horizontal Take-Off and Landing) project of the early 1980s. Rocket technology at the heart of the Skylon spaceship is a new innovation, the Sabre engine. Capable of breathing air at lower altitudes while keeping the engine supercool and being able to switch over to a oxygen & hydrogen mix with the flick of a switch, for higher altitudes and outside of Earth’s atmosphere.

Recent tests under observation of ESA scientists show that the Sabre engine is all systems go! No longer would a conventional rocket be required, as the Skylon spaceship would take off like a conventional jet aircraft, reach a high altitude and switch over to ‘pure’ rocket engine mode, all with the same engine. This innovation could revolutionise Earth orbit space travel for all. However current space ‘rocket’ innovation is far from the science fiction pages of galaxy class star ships like the USS Enterprise, or the exploratory interplanetary vessel Prometheus, and inter-dimensional vehicles like a TARDIS which exist in the realms of fantasy fiction to many.

The conventional means of using rocket technology is still very much the current thinking for many space entrepreneurs. Rocket engines are inefficient because most of their launch payload is spent fuel getting the craft and payload into orbit. Space rocket ships also have another major disadvantage, they are generally not designed for local planetary space travel, let alone interstellar travel beyond our solar system or galaxy. Current space ‘probe’ satellite ships can use planetary bodies to sling-shot around in order to gain additional momentum, or ion engines which are slow burning but effective over a long period of time in microgravity. Once their fuel source is spent, they will not be able to accelerate further or decelerate, without external influence.

Thinking outside of the conventional box is required. Thinking small is good when it comes to space mining and exploration. With microgravity, spaceships do not need to be like large ocean holiday liners, or massive supertanker ships. Small robotic craft that is modular and can latch onto one another, to make larger craft, is a possible way to more forward. Using origami technology as NASA has deployed for folding solar panels is another technology that should be widely adopted within the space industry.

For atmospheric Earth travel, getting robotic satellites into orbit could be achieved using weather-like balloons that can travel to high altitudes. Then a small disposable ‘rocket motor’ will take the craft into orbit, or beyond to a space station or the Moon. This disposable rocket motor can be built out of materials such as a composite graphite-paper, i.e., constructed out of paper, tin foil and plastic composites with a graphene circuit. Alternatively polycarbide plastic, ceramic, iron, graphite and graphene composites can be made for more re-usable non-disposable rockets, which then parachute down back through the atmosphere.

Utilising magnetic shielding in placement of ceramic tiles will help re-entry through Earth’s heat shield for any vehicle that travels into high orbit. I also have a new proposal for a replacement rocket engine or ion engine for interstellar travel that I have created on paper. This concept is more than an idea, as I have a descriptive model with intuitive knowledge on how to create a functioning technological innovation. My ideas are currently being written into science fiction short stories, should any space entrepreneurs wish to contact me and help develop these ideas beyond their “science fiction” pages.

Utilising kites with balloons for energy collection, such as Magenn‘s air rotor system which exploits the Coriolis effect, will help power a space-flight centre. A gravitational Coriolis effects can be employed to generate some interesting space-time effects, using a split-beam spherical rotational magnetic mirror ‘spinning’ light through a Fresnel lens system, composed of many small modules that focus into a Dyson sphere tokamak engine.

While space asteroid mining, Skylon Sabre engine and passenger low Earth orbit ventures are designed for profit, there are also benefits for humanity. The cost of creating and running such projects will be in the billions of US dollars. Further innovation and social benefits will come from profits, and many future benefits may not have been dreamt or imagined yet. After all, big things have small beginnings.

Further reading:

Space flight: It’s not all rocket science – pt1

Towards the end of April 2012, there were several headline grabbing space science stories published by British (and other) media outlets. Two stories which drew my attention discussed asteroid mining with backing from Google bosses, and the legacy of the HOTOL (Horizontal Take-Off and Landing) project, Skylon. A third notable story in the new space race focused on a new robot satellite with an accompanying ‘boat’ to explore Saturn’s moon Titan.

At face value, many of these ideas may seem like science fiction. Arthur C. Clarke’s satellite in geostationary orbit paper was originally published in Wireless World during 1945. Many believed this notion to be closer to science fiction than a possible realisation. A decade later John R. Pierce of Bell Labs gave a talk about geostationary communication satellites, a paper was subsequently published in 1956; Pierce has stated that he was not aware of Clarke’s paper at the time.

Although Clarke is generally credited with this idea, it was an innovation to both great thinkers, as the idea of geostationary satellites in orbit was first described in Hermann Oberth’s book, “The Rocket into Interplanetary Space” (Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen) published in 1923. However in 1928 Herman Potočnik’s published under the pseudonym Hermann Noordung “The Problem of Space Travel — The Rocket Motor” (Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums — der Raketen-Motor) which describes using radio communication using Oberth’s geostationary satellites. For further information, please see Wikipedia entry “Concept of the geostationary communications satellite“.

Still to many scientists and non-scientists alike, such ideas were more akin with science fiction stories and their protagonists like Buck Rogers (Amazing Stories), Flash Gordon or Dan Dare. When this inventive idea became innovated into mechanical technology, previously formed concepts written as fictional words and drawings, left the pages of science fiction magazines to become physical fact several years later and the Space Race was born. The original concept for a rocket can be traced back to antiquity, however the first successful use of a rocket came during the ninth century by Chinese Taoist alchemists, who discovered black powder which lead to the invention of fire arrows.

Modern day complex mechanical rocket engines fall into the realm of scientific research, possibly brought on by science fiction stories and founded on jet engine technology. During the late 1930s inventors Frank Whittle in the United Kingdom and Hans von Ohain in Germany independently invented the jet engine; which a rocket engine is based upon. WWII helped fuel innovation leading to the V1 and V2 rocket engines, technology later captured and copied principally by American and Russian scientists and engineers. While the jet engine was being introduced into commercial aircraft during the early 1950s, America and Russia were innovating rocket technology and founded the space race of the late 1950s, which continued until the mid 1960s.

The Space Race took a break as Kennedy’s legacy through Nixon was achieved when a man was put onto the Moon. Space stations came next with more communication satellites, America had Skylab and Russia had Mir. The cold war started to thaw, fiction writing became more prominent with serial killers and spies, while space exploration was confined principally to science fiction through Buck Rogers (returning from Amazing Stories to the 25th Century via television), Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who and Star Trek bolding going into repeat runs.

Then from the pages of fiction, like a phoenix from the flames of lost hopes and dreams, arose the NASA Space Shuttle programme. An innovation which was principally in the making 20 years prior to the first Space Shuttle launch in 1981. We now know that inefficiency arose with the Space Shuttle’s design (and programme) due to differences of opinion between NASA officials and the US military, who wanted to use the Space Shuttle fleet to deploy ‘spy’ and other communication satellites.

America and the western world were rejuvenated with new hope. The 8-bit home computer was in the making, space-based science fiction was going through a revival on the silver screen and American and Russia were back in the space race; however distances further than Earth orbit’s were no longer in sight for manned space flight, except for in science fiction, as with Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010 Odyssey. On January 28th 1986 disaster stuck for Challenger and her crew. With the tragic loss of life, space travel was seen as dangerous and the romantic dreams of returning to the Moon was shattered.

Ten plus years on, space travel is seen as an expensive dangerous dream by many Americans when asked about NASA’s Space Shuttle programme. Science is something that is edgy at best and dangerous at worse, where notions of British science fiction writing dystopia have crept into a western philosophy for many. However in the East, China and India are initiating their space programmes while Russia’s cold war has fully thawed, Germany is reunited and Russia’s space programme has slowed down to a shuffle.

And so into the noughties, the lust for human space travel has almost ended not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but with a slow shuffle. While communication satellites and exploring robots have reached Mars (some have), humankind with international cooperation orbits the Earth in the ISS (International Space Station). A void has been left open with the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle fleet, while private commercial enterprise is expected to fill the space race gap. April 2012… Planetary Resources is announced, backed by Google, scientists and philanthropists, while in Britain, Skylon passes its rocket engine test officiated by ESA.