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By Nick Wakeman

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Nick Wakeman

Shooting for the stars and beyond with a techpreneur

I have to admit my own bias here. I think space is cool and important. I think we never should have ended the shuttle program without a replacement ready to go. I think the more manned and unmanned missions we undertake, the better off we are.

I’m rooting for the various private sector space initiatives to succeed and be profitable while hoping NASA gets a bigger budget.

So, when Russian internet investor Yuri Milner announced his Starshot Project along with physicist Stephen Hawking and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, I applauded. They want to accelerate the search for life on other planets and are taking what many see as a distinctly Silicon Valley approach.

It’s a combination of entrepreneurship and long-term investing. The idea is to send perhaps thousands of iPhone-sized spacecraft toward our nearest solar system, Alpha Centauri, a mere 25 trillion miles away. The nano-crafts would have sails and would be pushed through space by a laser array shooting a beam at them from earth.

They would sail through Alpha Centauri collecting data and capturing imagery on planets and anything else they find there.

Milner says the technology has the potential to push the small crafts at 20 percent of light speed.

A launch is still 20 years away, but Milner is putting up $100 million for research and development to make the technology a reality.

He sees the potential for such an approach because of the accelerating development of nanotechnologies and Moore’s law, which continues to shrink circuits while making them more powerful and less power hungry.

Milner has enlisted many big names from the business, science and engineering fields and is using his $100 million as seed money via grants to attract others into the research. He is promising that research results will be published, and he is promising transparency.

He wants to work with anyone, including NASA and other government space agencies globally.

The payoff potentially would go beyond a single shot to Alpha Centauri. The technology to be developed will have myriad other applications, including closer to examination of our own solar system. Plus the research will help push the envelope on nanotechnology, communications and laser technology to name a few. Think of the software challenge of designing the navigation system to keep a swarm of nano-crafts headed in the right direction over trillion of miles.

If the launch happens in 2036, it still will take 20 years to get to Alpha Centauri, and then four years for the first data to be beamed back to earth. So, this is no quick payoff, but it is a great example of applying an entrepreneurship model to a large technical challenge.

What’s the payoff for contractors? I don’t really know, but there could be smaller scale projects that could benefit from this approach. We face multiple challenges that require the cooperation and collaboration of multiple government and private sector stakeholders.

But mostly, I think this is really cool and something too good to not comment on it.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Apr 15, 2016 at 9:27 AM

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