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Over half a century after the dawn of the space age, getting to space remains an epic challenge. Twice this year, the first stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket met a fiery end on the Atlantic Ocean—both attempts to recover and reuse rockets to reduce launch costs. A third rocket never made orbit, exploding on ascent.
The first two, planned experiments (not failures), show how hard it is to innovate around titanic launch costs. Meanwhile, Elon Musk called the loss of that third rocket a “huge blow.” It was SpaceX’s first in 19 launches and, more generally, the third failed launch to the space station since last fall and the second straight.
We probably shouldn’t be shocked when a giant column of highly combustible material accelerates to thousands of miles an hour and explodes. Actually, it’s extremely impressive how many make it to orbit. But are chemical rockets the only way to get there?
The company is working on an “external propulsion” spaceplane that separates energy from propellant. Instead of volatile liquid or solid rocket fuel, the craft runs on pressurized hydrogen. A ground antenna array aims a beam of microwaves at a heat exchanger in the plane’s belly, superheats the hydrogen to 2,000 degrees kelvin, and forces it out of an exhaust nozzle to provide enough thrust to reach orbit.
Ultimately, they hope to build a reusable single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane that would slash launch costs for small satellite payloads and remove combustion from the equation entirely.
It may sound a little far fetched, but in fact, the idea has a long history, and Escape Dynamics recently announced a key breakthrough. In tests, their lab-scale prototype thruster achieved efficiency higher than anything possible using chemical rockets.
“We as a technological civilization have been flying rockets into space for less than 60 years,” Dmitriy Tseliakhovich, the company’s cofounder and CEO/CTO, told Singularity Hub. That’s a pretty short period from a technological perspective, says Tseliakhovich, and chemical combustion isn’t the end—it’s merely the first step.