One conception of using lasers to power a spacecraft. (Image courtesy Breakthrough Initiatives at:

Reaching for the stars: The case for cooperative governance of directed energy technologies

One conception of using lasers to power a spacecraft. (Image courtesy Breakthrough Initiatives at:

In 2019 the United States Army announced its intent to build a 250- to 300-kilowatt laser weapon, called the Indirect Fire Protection Capability-High Energy Laser (IFPC-HEL, pronounced “if pick hell”), which would be 10 times more powerful than the most powerful existing laser weapon, the US Navy’s Laser Weapon System (LaWS). Though reportedly never used in action, LaWS is considered to be capable of blinding enemy sensors, shooting down drones, and disabling and damaging boats and helicopters (Mizokami 2019).

In military parlance, LaWS and other directed energy weapons – a category that includes lasers, microwaves, and particle beams – are considered to be disruptive technologies, meaning they are game changers that can radically alter the symmetry between competitors (Brimley, FitzGerald, and Sayler 2013). Directed energy technologies have also been stigmatized as weapons by their decades-long depiction in popular culture (for example, in the Star Wars film series).

But lasers are a dual-use technology, meaning that they can be used for both civilian and military purposes. When used for civilian purposes, disruptive technologies can be game changers in a positive sense: They can revolutionize scientific discoveries and space travel. Such is the intent of the Breakthrough Starshot program, which aims to build a ground-based, 100-gigawatt, directed energy laser array to propel the first space mission to another star system, Alpha Centauri. Directed energy propulsion can move space travel beyond the boundaries of current rocket technology and balance the perception of how it has been portrayed by science fiction.

Directed energy propulsion will allow space travel beyond that which has dominated to date: basically in and out of Earth’s celestial “driveway,” which includes low Earth orbit (no more than 2,000 kilometers above Earth’s surface) and geostationary orbit (roughly 36,000 kilometers away, a distance slightly less than the circumference of Earth). Directed energy propulsion can revolutionize interplanetary spaceflight by significantly shortening the travel time to distant planets, thus potentially enabling interstellar flight within decades.

Beyond propulsion applications, directed energy has the potential to provide Earth a defense against the kind of asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs (Lubin 2014) and to alleviate what military officials consider an urgent danger: space junk orbiting Earth (Macias 2019). But use of directed energy will require considerable international cooperation to abate the concerns of those who see only directed energy’s potential as a weapon, and that cooperation needs to begin now.

Directed energy propulsion as an exponential technology

With the advent of concerted spaceflight development after World War II, experts assumed that space technology would develop exponentially, taking spacecraft – and eventually humans – farther and farther from planet Earth. Princeton physicist and space activist Gerard K. O’Neill wrote The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space in 1976, providing a road map for space development in the Earth-Moon system. He envisioned the construction of large manned habitats after the Apollo program. But fulfilling O’Neill’s or anyone’s plans for more than short hops by small crews to nearby habitats required moving beyond liquid- or solid-fueled rocket propulsion and/or making substantial use of in-space resources.

Just as aircraft went from biplanes to airplanes to jets and may soon advance to hypersonic flight with Sabre engines (Chuter 2019), space exploration advocates assumed advanced technologies like ion drives, anti-matter, fusion and, for Star Trek fans, warp drive, would propel spacecraft of the future. But that hasn’t happened, despite continuous efforts. Two decades into the 21st century, rocket propulsion is little changed from the 1950s, and going beyond geostationary orbit is still the exception rather than the rule. National space agencies are no longer risking public monies on the introduction of new technologies and are expected to deliver secure employment for high-skilled workers rather than to introduce risky technologies.

Great-power competition between the United States, China, and Russia for power and influence dominates geostrategic politics in many global capitals. That complicates discussions regarding dual-use space technology in ways not seen since the Cold War. It can also result in the creation of security dilemmas when potential adversaries feel compelled to keep up with or outdo each other in technological development and, more recently, pump up their space muscles by creating space forces and moving toward the overt weaponization of space (Tucker 2019), something that had been strictly avoided in the past. Consequently, the space environment has become characterized in the United States as “congested, competitive, and contested” (Harrison 2013), with an emphasis on “contested” when it comes to national security strategy.

But discussions of great-power competition do not dominate space discussions in all capitals, and the “congested” part of the space descriptive relates to more players – public and private – active in space. More players mean more spacecraft (and space debris) on the orbital highways, and more players with more mature technical capabilities. Science and engineering principles are the same in Palo Alto, Beijing, Moscow, Brussels, Prague, Santiago, and beyond. Many countries, or organizations within countries, are developing technologies not based on or biased by security issues, and some small and medium countries have surprisingly mature scientific and technical capabilities.

Expertise in rocket science was once the purview of national security communities only. Today rocketry, especially launchers that are small but still capable of delivering a substantial payload to orbit, is the domain of dozens of private entities outside the national security realm. It has only been over the last 10 years, through the NewSpace movement of companies that are privately financed, often by their billionaire founders, that launch costs have dropped, enabling significantly cheaper across-the-board access to space. The US space shuttle launched one kilogram for $54,500, while SpaceX’s rocket Falcon 9 is launching one kilogram for $2,720, and SpaceX says its planned Super Heavy rocket will operate at an even “lower marginal cost per launch” than the Falcon 9 (Etherington 2019).

NewSpace actors are more internally flexible and can take risks no longer politically feasible in many countries with publicly funded space programs, or by behemoth defense aerospace companies. Although NewSpace companies like SpaceX are developing spacecraft to potentially go to the Moon and Mars, the SpaceX methane-based engine used in the planned Super Heavy rocket is still powered by the same rocket propulsion system used in the past. But, largely through reusability, NewSpace transportation systems offer significant improvements that provide higher power; have brought down costs and allowed heavier payloads; and therefore largely account for the expanded, competitive space environment. But none of the NewSpace activity, bold as it is, will accommodate deep space travel.

Using lasers as a directed source of energy to propel a spacecraft offers the opportunity to radically change the way humans study space and explore it; to go far beyond geostationary orbit; and to reduce the cost of scientific missions within the solar system while also enabling missions to other star systems in a reasonable timeframe. Alpha Centauri, a double-star system with a third star orbiting the center two, is the nearest star system to Earth’s Sun. But it is 4.37 light-years, or more than 40 trillion kilometers, away. Using current rocket technology, it would take 78,000 years to get there (Byrd 2017). Using directed energy, which hypothetically could propel a spacecraft to one-fifth the speed of light, it would take a much more feasible 20 years. Nevertheless, such a journey is filled with political, economic, and technical risks. The political risks are perhaps the most challenging and will only be overcome through cooperation.

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Space exploration is and always has been inspirational, charged with a sense of both mysticism and human destiny. Many actors, public and private, have an interest in developing cooperative, rather than competitive, approaches to space development. Well-designed, cooperative international programs can unite traditionally competing powers in science, boost their industries, and avoid the hoarding of a critical technology — like nuclear energy, which has security-related capabilities but has also revolutionized the way energy is created and diseases are cured — in geopolitical power grabs.

However, since the beginning, space exploration has been mainly driven by national pride, with occasional attempts to stimulate international cooperation between competing superpowers through projects such as the International Space Station. A shared mission of even bigger scale that would be valued by all humankind has still not sparked interest within national governments. But if humans are to move beyond Earth’s driveway, our fascination with space must be transformed into institutionalized cooperation. Building momentum to do so can inspire, or challenge, others to follow suit or be left behind.

Breakthrough Starshot

Development of directed energy as a propulsion system to travel to destinations like Alpha Centauri is not a hypothetical; it is already happening through one of many new configurations of space players. Breakthrough Starshot is a privately funded initiative that is bilaterally networking with states, academic institutions, private companies, and organizations to assemble the capabilities to conduct a proof-of-concept mission to the Alpha Centauri system. The project was announced in 2016 by the Israeli-Russian billionaire and entrepreneur Yuri Milner, along with the late physicist Stephen Hawking (who was a member of the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors until his death in 2018) and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Simply stated, though there is nothing simple about this research and engineering project, the intent is to develop a ground-based, 100-gigawatt-class laser array (Mosher 2018) to propel a 4-by-4-meter solar sail weighing about a half gram to one-fifth the speed of light. Photons of light hit the sail and propel it forward, with the sail rapidly gaining speed over some 10 minutes before it passes out of laser range. Attached to the sail will be tiny, one-gram nanosatellites called Star Chips, equipped with cameras, navigation, and communication capabilities for sending data and imagery back to Earth. The sail will detach after 10 minutes, and the Star Chips will continue on their way, traveling horizontally with as little of their surfaces exposed to the flight direction as possible, in the hope that one or more will survive any collisions with the molecules of interstellar gas they will inevitably encounter on their 20-year journey. Star Chips will communicate with Earth using tiny lasers that operate at the speed of light, so message delivery will take a bit more than four years once the Star Chips reach Alpha Centauri. Still, those who will someday see the data may not have been born yet.

While the technical challenges of Starshot are huge, they provide an opportunity for countries, companies, institutions, and individuals to work together on a cutting-edge, inspirational space program that would otherwise likely be beyond their reach. The Czech Republic, for example, does not have a dedicated space agency, but the Czechs have several world-class laser research centers because, as a small country, they decided to excel in that particular technical niche. Chile does not have a space program either, but it has a natural environment, astronomy infrastructure, and expertise highly suitable for the kind of ground-based laser array necessary to propel the solar sail. Chile also has a long record of cooperation on space missions using its Very Large Telescope in the Atacama Desert. While Apollo was a top-down program, Breakthrough Starshot is more a bottom-up enterprise, in which small nations can play key roles.

The naysayers

Whatever attention directed energy usually gets in the press or within policy circles is in connection with potentially using lasers as weapons. Lasers are already used, including by the United States and many other countries, to get a clear view of objects in space by correcting for atmospheric distortion (Shachtman 2009) and to briefly light up space debris to get a precise location for tracking purposes. There have also been alleged instances (Zissis 2007) of a laser being used to temporarily “dazzle” the optical sensors on a satellite. National security advisers fear that, in a conflict, an adversary could use a laser to permanently blind a satellite, rendering it useless. If it is a high-value satellite used for strategic missions, like early warning of a nuclear attack, that could prompt rapid escalation of the conflict.

The fears are legitimate, especially given that the laser array being discussed to send spacecraft to Alpha Centauri would be bigger than any ever built, with the theoretical potential to inflict catastrophic damage on a target. One way to build trust regarding a laser array’s intended use would be to design the array to beam energy only to spots far beyond low Earth orbit. Satellites in low Earth orbit would not be affected, because they would pass through the laser beams for only a fraction of a second. A huge laser array with millions of beams focused on a distant spot in space, as Starshot intends, cannot be easily refocused on another spot, because the array’s maneuverability is naturally limited by its design. Transparency, confidence, and thus security can be hard-wired into the design.

As with nuclear energy, artificial intelligence, and cybertech, the know-how and positive aspects of directed energy technology make its development attractive, perhaps even inevitable. Developing it cooperatively and transparently is the best and only option.

The lifetime cost of a program like Breakthrough Starshot is estimated to be in the $10 billion range, and only a fraction of that has been committed for preliminary research. It is a 50-year-plus program, and it could be hard to keep the momentum going. All this is to say there is an argument that, even beyond the technological challenges, we need not worry about directed energy as a near-term technology for space propulsion. But it takes a long time to negotiate governance rules for large, multiplayer science programs: seven years for the CERN particle accelerator in Switzerland, 14 years for the International Space Station, and 21 years for the 35-nation ITER nuclear fusion research facility in France. With the development of a laser for space propulsion already underway through bilateral agreements managed by Breakthrough Starshot, commencing consideration of governance issues is only prudent. The list of those issues is long.

Governance lessons learned

Clearly, governance must be on a multinational basis, and national and institutional inclusion as broad as possible, to avoid creating another security dilemma. While it is entirely possible that geostrategic competition will drive individual countries to develop or buy their own directed energy systems — with multiple countries, including the United States, Russia, and China already involved or interested — the economics of something on the scale of Starshot are infeasible for most countries. “Who pays and how?” is an important question to be answered.

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While no single project from the past offers comprehensive governance solutions, there are “lessons learned” that can be helpful in the future. CERN was proposed not only for scientific discoveries in particle physics, but also as a project to unite European countries after the quagmire of World War II (Robinson 2019). The European Space Agency was another such “uniting” project. The first sentence of the ESA Convention highlights the inability of any single European country to afford space development alone. Decades-long attempts to harness fusion power led to the establishment of ITER, because no country can singlehandedly afford the biggest machine ever built. If ITER works and can be made economically feasible, everybody will benefit from clean energy, perhaps enough to even stabilize the climate. The European Union helped build space missions that currently provide a half billion citizens with navigation services (using the Galileo satellite system) and Earth imagery useful for various applications (courtesy of the Copernicus Earth-observing satellites). Those projects could not have been funded by just one European nation.

There are ethical issues to consider as well. If directed energy allows for travel to new worlds, what are the ethics of potentially communicating with aliens? Any contact between human-made probes and an alien ecosystem raises issues regarding panspermia — humans planting our life elsewhere — that must be thought through. Ironically, if life on Earth originated through panspermia, whether panspermia is positive or negative becomes ethically challengeable. Additionally, it must be asked whether, given the high velocity that Star Chips would travel at, the probes could bombard remote planets at speeds fast enough to cause significant damage.

On the purely positive side, an ethical argument can be made (Booth 2007) that if there is a technology with the potential for planetary defense against the kind of asteroid that snuffed out the dinosaurs — which directed energy could be — then there is a moral obligation to develop it for humankind, and for it to be governed by representatives of humankind as a whole.

With multinational management, other applications besides space exploration could be considered, such as the removal of space debris (Williams 2018). Debris is the most pressing near-term threat to the sustainability of Earth’s space environment. Mitigation and management, however, has been hindered by the dual-use nature of many of the proposed mitigation technologies, including directed energy, because of their potential use as weapons. Using directed energy to clean up space debris has the potential to spur private-sector interest comparable to that of the NewSpace movement’s interest in rocketry, which resulted in the emergence of dozens of companies focusing on small launchers. Without a solution to orbital debris, the sustainability of space as a useable domain for any actor becomes questionable. SpaceX, for example, which plans to deploy 12,000 satellites within the next five years and has completed the required paperwork for another 30,000 (Henry 2019), currently has a failure rate around 5 percent. Those dysfunctional satellites will need to be de-orbited quickly.

Security is the umbrella issue under which all others should be considered. These include everything from firing clearances (if lasers are to be used to de-orbit debris, those lasers will certainly pose a security threat to active satellites) to a governance system to assure that high-powered lasers could never be used for anything but peaceful purposes. It is because these issues are so complex and so important that it behooves national governments and interested parties to inclusively begin discussions — perhaps first on a Track 2 basis involving unofficial talks and problem-solving activities, where participants would feel freer to discuss options, but eventually as a dialogue within the United Nations, the one forum where most countries have representatives. While space security communities rarely pay attention to the workings of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, the progress made there on transparency and confidence-building measures over the past five years has been impressive (Foust 2019). And in times of great-power competition like the current moment, it can be in the best interests of great powers to make sure they are included, rather than excluded, in talks that directly or indirectly affect them, lest a critical mass of small-but-developed countries proceed without them.

Directed energy as a space propulsion system offers the potential for space travel to advance beyond the parameters of what is currently possible. The scientists involved with Breakthrough Starshot are working on the technical feasibility (Green 2019). It is now time for others to take up the mantle of governance.


Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

This research received support from the Technological Agency of the Czech Republic, particularly through scientific grant TACR TL01000181: “A multidisciplinary analysis of planetary defense from asteroids as the key national policy ensuring further flourishing and prosperity of humankind both on Earth and in Space.”

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