Visionary billionaires are leading the new space race

China has great ambitions in exploration, but is still committed to the state-military model. It may be time to look to incorporating private resources

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 April, 2016, 12:51am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 April, 2016, 12:51am

Space exploration used to be an exclusive club of the world’s most powerful states. But given the extreme concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands in recent decades, it should not be surprising a few visionary billionaires are pioneering space travel, satellite services and now, even galactic exploration. Russian internet billionaire Yuri Milner has launched a US$100 million initiative to send an armada of tiny spacecraft to Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to our own solar system, within this generation.

Propelled by laser beams shot from Earth, nanocraft the size of computer chips will travel at 20 per cent of the speed of light covering nearly 40 trillion km of space. The whole journey may take just 20 years. If this sounds like science fiction, it is not. Leading physicists such as Stephen Hawking and Freeman Dyson have endorsed the science behind it. For sure, the laser and nanotechnology will have to take a great leap from their current states, but such projects will propel engineers to speed up development of next-generation technology.

A giant leap for mankind... to Alpha Centauri: Stephen Hawking announces plan to send laser-powered probes to star system 4.3 light years away

Milner is just the latest billionaire looking to outer space and seeing vast commercial and scientific potential. Virgin Galactic, owned by Richard Branson and often billed as the world’s first “spaceline”, has been trying to develop space tourism with its sub-orbital spacecraft. SpaceX, the company headed by Elon Musk, the brain behind Tesla electric cars, has successfully landed its reusable booster rocket on an ocean platform.

Space companies like Virgin and SpaceX are also significant contractors for space agencies such as Nasa. At a time of budget cutbacks, we are seeing increasing cooperation between states and private enterprise, which often enhance efficiency, reduce costs and produce bold and visionary ideas like Milner’s.

China, which has great ambitions in space exploration, is still committed to the state-military research and development model. This has developed its own red tape and bureaucracy. It may be time to consider incorporating private resources and talents from the mainland and overseas.