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  6.  | Next Steps in Space Likely Privately Funded

Next Steps in Space Likely Privately Funded

by | Oct 3, 2023 | Arctic, Featured, News, Science, Telecom & Tech

Breakthrough Listen is the largest ever scientific research program aimed at finding evidence of civilizations beyond Earth. The program includes a survey of the million closest stars to Earth. Using the world’s most powerful telescopes, it scans the center of our galaxy and the entire galactic plane. Beyond the Milky Way, it listens for messages from the 100 closest galaxies to ours.

Pete Worden, Executive Director of Breakthrough Initiatives

In one century, from 1876 to 1976, humans developed the technology to go roughly 1,000 times faster than previously possible—including the ability to create the force needed for us to leave our home atmosphere. But not a lot of ground has been gained since then. While some of those achievements have been driven by governmental involvement, Pete Worden says the next phase of space exploration and technological development may come at the hands of private investors.

Answering the Fundamental Questions

Worden is a retired US Air Force Brigadier General, former director of the National Aeronautic Space Administration (NASA) Ames Research Center, and current executive director of Breakthrough Initiatives, a set of science-based programs that investigate what founders call the “fundamental questions of life in the universe. The organization asks, “Are we alone? Are there habitable worlds in our galactic neighborhood? Can we make the great leap to the stars? And can we think and act together–as one world in the cosmos?”

Breakthrough Initiatives (breakthroughinitiatives.org) are largely funded by the foundation established by Russian-born investors Yuri and Julia Milner. Theoretical physicist and author Stephen Hawking was a science advisor until his death in 2018. One program—Breakthrough Prize Foundation—aims to encourage scientific breakthroughs by creating a monetary incentive for new technology. It was founded by Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Anne Wojcicki.

“They realized that $3 trillion to $4 trillion in profits are made by high-tech companies. Their question was, who was going to do the science that was going to power us into the future?” Worden told those in attendance at a September 20 luncheon at the Petroleum Club in Anchorage.

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Worden was in Alaska last week to give a presentation at Commonwealth North’s weekly luncheon. There, he discussed Breakthrough programs on the horizon, from a probe being readied to travel to Venus to a plan to create ultra-fast, light-driven nanocrafts (think a microchip attached to a parachute-type solar sail that can be propelled by light) that would be able to speed through space and reach other potentially life-sustaining plants, such as Alpha Centauri, much more quickly than the 80,000 years it would take through our current methods of space travel.

“I think the technology is coming along and the concepts are fun to work on,” Worden said.

How Can Alaskans Take Part?

Breakthrough Starshot aims to demonstrate proof of concept for ultra-fast light-driven nanocrafts and lay the foundation for a first launch to Alpha Centauri within the next generation. Along the way, the project could generate important supplementary benefits to astronomy, including solar system exploration and detection of Earth-crossing asteroids.

Pete Worden, Executive Director of Breakthrough Initiatives

Following Worden’s presentation, Commonwealth North President Emeritus Mead Treadwell; Board Member Ben Kellie, founder of The Launch Company and current Entrepreneur in Residence at UAA; and Randy “Church” Kee, senior advisor of Arctic Security Affairs with the Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, fielded questions from the audience about space exploration and how Alaska and Alaskan entrepreneurs could take part.

“You are taking on some of the most daunting tasks technologically possible,” Kee told Worden. “What other things could be gamechangers in technology that could overcome the technological obstacles you are facing?”

Kee, who works with representatives from other nations on issues pertaining to the Arctic, says he believes in drawing “the largest tent possible” and bringing in many partners to ensure expertise and interest.

Kellie says after working as an engineer at SpaceX—the American spacecraft manufacturer, launch service provider, defense contractor, and satellite communications company founded by Elon Musk—he feels somewhat cynical about developing technology for federal clients such as the Department of Defense or NASA. What Worden presented is enticing.

“This kind of thing… touches on the innate desire to explore and to do that for the greater good of humanity and of the world. I’m done with space, or that version of it, but I’m excited to see this,” he said.

Kellie challenged those in attendance to think about how to get involved, and how Alaska can be a part of what’s happening in aeronautics. For example, Kee said the idea of using space technology to improve national defense is interesting. Treadwell pointed out that there is potential for in-atmosphere solutions using aeronautic technology that could transition well to space, such as using air ships to transport far-north mining equipment instead of ice roads.

“Don’t think we live in some way, far-off place. We are the frontier, where the frontier thinking ends up being,” Treadwell said.

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In This Issue

Making History

May 2024

The track of oil and gas development in Alaska shows the footprints of bold companies and hard-working individuals who shaped the industry in the past and continue to innovate today. The May 2024 issue of Alaska Business explores that history while looking forward to new product development, the energy transition for the fishing fleet, and the ethics of AI tools in business.

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