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Greetings once again everyone, it is a pleasure to welcome you back to this new series of short articles reporting on the latest challenges and successes in the Space Industry. It is our mission to keep you updated with the latest news, and provide wider background context around the various players and projects driving the Space Industry forwards… and more importantly, upwards and sideways! “Sideways, why sideways?” I hear you say. Well read on Earthlings and I will explain all in due course.
Previously we introduced SpaceX and their ambition to colonise our nearest planetary neighbour with their new fully reusable space vehicle, Starship. In our next Edition, we will move on to another space project run by one of the most well-known brands on this planet, but in the present Edition, we will focus again on SpaceX and take a closer look at the huge Starship vehicle. And given the writer Adrian Bennett is not only a mechanical/aerospace engineer, but a patent attorney as well, we will also today take a quick look at the SpaceX approach to protecting their Intellectual Property.
So, why is Starship such an exciting prospect for the space industry? Well, firstly, it is big, very big! Starship is in a class of vehicles capable of lifting more than 50 tons – the “super heavy launcher” class. But the ultimate aim is not for it to lift simply 50 tons, but to be capable of lifting a colossal 150 tons into orbit (for context, the whole Mir space station weighed just 130 tons).
The Starship concept was originally presented in 2005 in the context of transporting up to 100 passengers to Mars and the vehicle has since been developed into a two stage system standing some 120 meters high, which makes Starship the tallest rocket ever built – the Saturn V rockets which first launched humans to the moon in the 1960s were 110 meters tall.
The two stages of the vehicle are the upper stage, known as Starship, which would carry passengers and/or payload, and the lower stage, which is a booster designed to propel the upper stage into orbit before being detached and recovered to Earth for reuse. It is somewhat confusing (famously so) that, while the upper stage is known as Starship, the two stages together are also commonly referred to as “Starship”.
Significantly, the volume available for payload is truly enormous at almost 1000 cubic meters, which is unlike anything that has been available for space flight up to this point. The payload volume has a diameter of 9 meters and a height of 22 meters, and this means that far less time, effort and money will need to be spent on folding payload into complicated shapes so that it can be transported into space. For example, the 6.5 meter mirror of the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope would have easily fitted inside Starship, significantly reducing the $10million price tag of that telescope by simplifying the design and reducing the number of potential failure points (which ran into hundreds). So the benefits of the Starship vehicle to the space exploration community are tremendously exciting.
With so much innovation at SpaceX, you might expect the company to have a large number of patents to its name. Well, SpaceX have far fewer patents than might be expected. Elon Musk has previously said that “We have essentially no patents in SpaceX”. The approach has been to keep technological developments secret, rather than publishing them in patents and relying on law enforcement to prevent copying. When innovations are being sent into space and immediately retrieved on their return, they are generally inaccessible to competitors and so the SpaceX approach is perhaps not inappropriate. Of course not all innovators use their inventions in quite this way, so it is not an approach that would be suitable for everyone!
Next time we will be taking a look at Virgin Galactic…!
If you have any questions about IP protection for your own products, or about the IP protection of others, please do not hesitate to contact us at email@example.com to see how we can help.
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