Getting to space without rockets
Access to space has the potential to open up enormous opportunities from more advanced communications, satellite imagery and resource discovery through to the exploration and colonisation of other planets. However even with recent efforts by tech billionaires rocket-driven approaches remain enormously expensive and therefore severely limit the human race's potential to move beyond our planet.

We are looking for breakthrough and completely non-traditional approaches to vastly reduce the cost of transporting payloads into space.
Why focus on getting to space without rockets?
Rockets are really insanely expensive. For the best part of the space race a single NASA launch has cost just over $1bn. That works out at $200,000 per Kg. To put that into perspective, if you want to take one small bottle of water that'll be an extra $30,000. Considering how heavy scientific, communication and mining equipment can be, it becomes obvious that rockets are unlikely to open up access to this vast resource.

The potential for more commercially viable space travel has caught the attention of several tech-billionaires over the last 10 years: Elon Musk is working on SpaceX which takes a reusable approach to rockets by landing them vertically back on earth. This aims to get the cost down to around $1.6bn for 12 launches (roughly an order of magnitude cheaper). Virgin Galactic has taken the approach of putting a shuttle on top of a plane for a large part of the distance before engaging the rockets. So far they've only reached 71,000 ft (13 miles). Another really interesting approach is that being taken by our friends at UK company Reaction Engines. They have created an engine that works both with and without atmosphere, meaning that you can use the same engine to both take off and move into space, an incredible achievement.

Overall, the use of rockets, and therefore enormous amounts of fuel, is always going to be a hugely expensive method of reaching space. It is a brute force approach. Meanwhile, the non rocket based approaches (covered below) which have been proposed so far have failed to obtain financial backing due to enormous upfront cost that is unlikely to pay back within a financially sensible window. What's needed is a completely new approach.
What are the opportunities?
One of the most well thought out approaches is the 'Space Elevator'. This is essentially a cable that stretches into space with a counterweight at 35,800 km in geostationary orbit which produces enough centrifugal force to counter gravity. Other than the huge cost, the key thing holding this back is the lack of availability or sufficiently light and strong materials in the required quantities.

Other approaches include: The Launchloop (like the elevator, but in a loop that comes down again at another point. Slingshots. Multistage airships. Light-craft in which a laser is used to heat air underneath the craft to expand the air and provide thrust. Solar sails which sail on the radiation emitted by stars and the Ion Thruster which creates thrust by accelerating ions with electricity have the potential to work in space but don't overcome the challenge of getting there.

Whilst some of these are moving towards initial proof of concepts they are all either currently impossible at scale, hugely capital intensive or fail to solve both parts of the problem. We are looking to develop a completely different solution that has the potential to be demonstrated within the next 3 years on a budget of £1m and get to scale in the order of 10s of millions.
Who are we looking for?
We think this challenge would benefit from people with backgrounds in:

  • Mechanical engineering
  • Electrical engineering
  • Aeronautics
  • Physics
  • Robotics
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Chemistry
  • Materials
  • Bioengineering
  • Mathematics

If you have a different STEM background, but you're keen to solve problems in this challenge area, please apply, the most interesting things happen at the interface between skill-sets!
Specific challenges
We're currently designing a number of specific challenges in this area.
Sign up if you'd like to work on this challenge area and find out more about the specific challenges!
How to build a non-rocket solution to space travel on a budget of £1m? Can you solve The Frontier challenge?
Other challenge areas

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Challenges have been developed in collaboration with Science Practice, design & research company working with scientists.
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