Britain well placed to deliver interstellar space travel

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A new £70m project to send nano-sized spacecraft to a completely different solar system was announced by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and British scientist Stephen Hawking.

And Britain, with its growing space industry and burgeoning technology start-up scene could play a major role in helping realise the dream of interstellar space flight.

The team of researchers believes they can achieve this ambitious feat using tiny Nanobots capable of ‘sailing’ across the universe.

In a press conference Mr Milner explained that the Starshot spacecraft will be made up of a wafer-size chip attached to an ultralight space sail. These will then be propelled to the Alpha Centauri star system using lasers fired from here on earth.

The team believes that if the chips for such a craft would were built today it would weigh 370 milligrams, by 2030 though, they hope to get this down to 220 milligrams.

Because of the size of the ships, scientists believe that the new craft could travel at a fifth of the speed of light, and reach a nearby star in 30 years, compared to 30,000 years for current space ships.

child little girl at window dreaming and admiring starry sky at night

There are a number of technological challenges to overcome.

First and most pressing are problems associated with microfabrication. Designers will have to grapple with how to minimise cameras, sensors, photo thrusters and power supplies down to sizes that will fit on a chip about the same size as a postage stamp.

Advancements will also need to be made in nanotechnology in order to build a space sail that is light enough to travel at high speeds, but strong enough to withstand the pressures of space.

And laser technology is not yet powerful enough to propel the crafts into space.

These are all complicated technical challenges. But Mr Milner – who made his fortune betting on internet giants like Facebook, Twitter and Spotify when they were still start-ups – insists that it is all technology that will be available in the near future.

Britain’s space race

Some British space scientists believe that they have valuable skills to contribute to the project. BBC News reported that Prof Martin Sweeting, a researcher at Surrey Space Centre and head of Surrey Satellite Technology in Guildford wants to be involved in the project.

His Guildford-based company has already played a crucial role in reducing the size and cost of satellites that orbit the earth. And now he wants to take this to the next step and minimise the instruments of space travel.

Professor Sweeting is not alone in his aspirations for the UK space industry.

The UK has big plans for the space sector. By 2030, the government wants to have captured 10% of the global space market. To drive this growth, the government is relying to a large extent on ambitious technology SMEs both inside and outside the sector.

There is already evidence of growth. Specialist recruiter Huxley Engineering reports that there has been a 250 per cent jump in jobs in the space sector in just the first quarter of 2016.

Huxley forecasts that the UK space sector will be looking to fill an extra 100,000 skilled jobs by 2030.

Growth in the sector is being drive both by private investment and governmental support. The UK Space Agency, our version of NASA, has invested in several companies and schemes to boost the sector.

Most recently, the government agency awarded £50,000 to Business Durham to help them set up a space technology incubator. The business group will help nurture around 30 space and general technology start-ups.

It is an area of technology with a lot of potential that has yet to be fully tapped. And this potential is attracting some quite large investors. As well as Mr Milner, who has invested in various space projects that national government’s deem too risky, technology businesses like Oxford Space Systems have been able to attract investments both from entrepreneurs and governments.


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