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Ad Astra Diplomacy

Showy and expensive, space exploration is a fine tool for fostering international cooperation

2 min read
Photo of a rocket as it moves slowly toward the pad at the Wenchang Space Launch Center, in China’s Hainan Province.
Photo: Sun Hao/Xinhua/Redux

Photo of a rocket as it moves slowly toward the pad at the Wenchang Space Launch Center, in China\u2019s Hainan Province.A Long March 5 rocket is moved slowly toward the pad at the Wenchang Space Launch Center, in China’s Hainan Province.Photo: Sun Hao/Xinhua/Redux

In the 2015 science fiction blockbuster The Martian, the United States makes a rushed effort to send life-sustaining provisions to its marooned astronaut on the Red Planet. Alas, the attempt fails when NASA’s resupply rocket explodes shortly after liftoff. But officials with China’s national space program save the day when they offer the services of a previously secret Chinese rocket that is capable of ferrying the needed materials.

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Economics Drives Ray-Gun Resurgence

Laser weapons, cheaper by the shot, should work well against drones and cruise missiles

4 min read
In an artist’s rendering, a truck is shown with five sets of wheels—two sets for the cab, the rest for the trailer—and a box on the top of the trailer, from which a red ray is projected on an angle, upward, ending in the silhouette of an airplane, which is being destroyed

Lockheed Martin's laser packs up to 300 kilowatts—enough to fry a drone or a plane.

Lockheed Martin

The technical challenge of missile defense has been compared with that of hitting a bullet with a bullet. Then there is the still tougher economic challenge of using an expensive interceptor to kill a cheaper target—like hitting a lead bullet with a golden one.

Maybe trouble and money could be saved by shooting down such targets with a laser. Once the system was designed, built, and paid for, the cost per shot would be low. Such considerations led planners at the Pentagon to seek a solution from Lockheed Martin, which has just delivered a 300-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army. The new weapon combines the output of a large bundle of fiber lasers of varying frequencies to form a single beam of white light. This laser has been undergoing tests in the lab, and it should see its first field trials sometime in 2023. General Atomics, a military contractor in San Diego, is also developing a laser of this power for the Army based on what’s known as the distributed-gain design, which has a single aperture.

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