Power beamed from space, rocket cargo: UK military looking at ‘game-changing’ space tech


Screengrab of an Air Force Research lab video on the Rocket Cargo program. (DVIDS)

LONDON: The UK military could be on the brink of “unexpected, game-changing, spin-off technologies” in space, according to the Ministry of Defence’s Director for Space, Air Vice-Marshal Harv Smyth — including everything from beaming solar power back to earth to mining asteroids for rare materials.

Speaking July 14 at the Global Air and Space Chiefs’ Conference in London Smyth described how technological advancement in the space domain was moving at “breakneck pace,” offering up “enormous opportunities” to armed forces. But, warned, the MoD needs to be thinking now about its role as new capabilities in space come online in the coming years, or risk being left to scramble after the fact.

This included the sector’s ability to operationalize new capability at “eye-watering speeds,” he claimed.

“We are starting to witness agile acquisition in near real time, the perfect example being from the ongoing Ukraine crisis. Who’d have thought a single tweet from the Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister asking Elon Musk for support from Space X’s Starlink [Low Earth Orbit satellite] capability would result in a positive reply in just a few hours and battle-winning MDI [multi-domain integration] capability delivered in days,” he said.

Additional opportunities which appear likely to progress over the next two decades include development of a lunar habitat and lunar gateway, Smyth continued.

“For a start, we are going to return to the Moon in just a few years and this time we are going to stay in a permanent lunar habitat, supported by a new lunar gateway. Just this topic alone with increase exponentially the need for more astronauts. What is Defence’s ambition to be part of this growth?” he asked.

Furthermore, Smyth highlighted how asteroid mining could also be mastered in the next couple of decades, allowing for the retrieval of high-worth minerals. He noted that could result in “a massive boom of prosperity for those who can exploit it, so what is our role in the ‘protect and defend’ of such a capability?”

Smyth also described how space-based solar power, beaming energy back to Earth using laser technology, could also benefit armed forces with China planning to build the first such system by 2028. “They’re two years ahead of schedule in the program,” he warned.

Another major example of spin-off technology from space innovation, Smyth urged, is the US Department of Defense’s Rocket Cargo program — a spin-off from SpaceX’s Starship to Mars efforts, where the proposal is to dramatically transform point-to-point logistics on Earth by utilizing repurposed Starship rockets.

Those rockets have a cargo bay the size of a C-17, travel at Mach 20, and don’t require any prepared operating surfaces, Smyth enthused, suggesting that such a system could deliver a 120-ton payload anywhere in the world in less than 50 minutes.

“Think what this would mean with regards to expeditionary operations and global response, and just how small this will make our world,” Smyth said before stating that the first trial of rocket-propelled cargo is scheduled to take place in 2025.

“Is there an opportunity here for Defence? Is the rocket cargo concept our generation after next C-17? And if yes, what does this mean for our broader approach to capability development and delivery?

“And importantly, this is not just about [those] very alluring rockets, about the equipments, but to adapt to such radical technological advancement, we need to think about the changes required to our training, our policy and doctrine, our infrastructure requirements, spaceports not airports. Rockets, satellites and astronauts — who would not be excited by this?

“But as ever, certainly from my perspective, if we were to honestly be serious about truly getting up to technology at the edge, specifically to enable [Multi-Domain Integration], we must remember that it is not just about the alluring shiny equipment. In reality, the other defense lines of development — training, infrastructure, doctrine, etc — are of equal, if not more importance if we are to properly absorb technological innovation,” he concluded.

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