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Published: 22:53, November 28, 2023 | Updated: 09:56, November 29, 2023
Taikonauts’ visit will hopefully kickstart a major policy shift in HK
By Quentin Parker
Published:22:53, November 28, 2023 Updated:09:56, November 29, 2023 By Quentin Parker

On Tuesday, an important Chinese mainland science delegation, including four taikonauts from the Shenzhou XII-XV manned space-flight missions, started a much anticipated four-day visit to Hong Kong. This important and exciting trip follows on from that of trained taikonaut Zhao Chuandong to Cyberport on Oct 20 for the Orion Astropreneur Space Academy, a nonprofit NGO for NewSpace (OASA) organized NewSpace conference on “Tomorrow’s Technology Today”, which did a fantastic job of showcasing what Hong Kong can offer in this area. 

It’s clear the mainland is giving the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region significant face and attention for what is emerging as a major national strategic endeavor of focus, power and ongoing achievement: space exploration, space science and a growing space industry. The last is through the opportunities offered by the burgeoning global “NewSpace” commercial economy that Morgan Stanley estimates will be worth $1 trillion by the end of the current decade.

China’s aerospace information industry alone (i.e. data from satellites in all forms and downstream usage) is forecast to reach about 45 billion yuan ($6.3 billion) by 2025. There were already over 400 companies in this data-rich field registered by the end of 2022 with NewSpace startups springing up all the time. So far there are precious few in Hong Kong with Silkwave, HKATG and AdaSpace being a few highlighted exceptions. Just this week it was also reported that a Chinese investment group had set up a fund of  around 100 billion yuan intended to turbocharge mainland investment in this area. I believe the HKSAR can pitch for some of this rich funding vein.

At the press conference on Nov 28, the first day of the visit, Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu commented on opportunities for aerospace technology and our youth without really focusing on financial investment. Nevertheless, I hope visits such as this will not only lead to a transformation of our city’s engagement with the amazing mainland space activities from an educational, public awareness and basic space science perspective but will also kickstart a major policy shift for our city.

This should be in terms of what we can also bring to the global and national table across NewSpace commercial development activities. One is the value the mainland clearly attaches to our top universities that are internationally connected and highly respected. We have five universities in the top 100 globally as determined by various ranking schemes with my own University of Hong Kong (HKU) being top of a very good pile. This makes the HKSAR a powerful tertiary education training and research nexus of immense value to China and almost unique for a city with a population of less than 7.5 million. We need to make much more of this leverage.

As I have said before, the HKSAR has a superb regulatory and compliance infrastructure in place that can act as a powerful investment facilitator for NewSpace that is independent, globally respected and trusted

Hong Kong already has plenty of local talent “sparks” nurtured and trained across our great halls of academe to help ignite the NewSpace flame. Indeed, rather than just focusing on the issue of developing homegrown innovation and technology in this sector and building our city as an international hub in these terms, we also need to seize the low-hanging fruit from the tree of fintech, finance and investment.

We have successfully grown this tree since the 1997 handover to something that is really significant — fourth globally after New York, London and our regional rival Singapore. As I have said before, the HKSAR has a superb regulatory and compliance infrastructure in place that can act as a powerful investment facilitator for NewSpace that is independent, globally respected and trusted. Our local prowess and expertise in financial management, fintech and delivery of initial public offerings can be effectively applied to NewSpace to funnel, leverage and attract the investment sorely needed for NewSpace startups and more mature entities. This is to help them compete internationally and take them to the next level in terms of missions, capacity and deliverables. Mainland analysts have already commented on the need for more private capital and entrepreneurship to act as a fundamental catalyst to boost the entire mainland space industry, including the key area of space data exploitation. Can Hong Kong seize the opportunities on offer? Can our government provide the policy framework to support this?

The mainland has been providing a stream of opportunities and green-lightsto the HKSAR in this increasingly important area for quite a while now. This is as exemplified by the Hong Kong-Macao opportunity for payload specialists for the Chinese space station (I believe within a few years a Hong Kong taikonaut will be in space), the ability of our universities to now apply to put payloads on the space station, the arrival of moon rock from the Chang’e 5 mission to HKU and now this major visit.

I believe there is also a wider agenda at play. It’s not just about Hong Kong continuing to develop its aerospace research base. This is currently best exemplified by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) from a largely cutting-edge engineering perspective, but also the Lab for Space Research at HKU for more front-line space astrophysics research and now recently from the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) with plans for badged and recently launched satellites. I think there is an opportunity for a major satellite mission similar to what was gifted to Macao to the tune of around 675million yuan.

I would like to see a consortium of our Hong Kong-based world-class universities propose a major HKSAR science research mission satellite at the 1 billion yuan level. It would bring together the best and brightest minds from HKU, PolyU, CUHK and HKUST in particular in a coordinated plan for an exciting HKSAR Space Science Research mission. This blue-riband flagship project would set a clear marker that Hong Kong has arrived on the scene of space technology, development and science leadership in the area. It would act as a powerful magnet for STEM talent incubation and broader community engagement with pride, ambition, belief and action.

The author is a professor in the Faculty of Science at the University of Hong Kong, the director of its Laboratory for Space Research, and vice-chairman of the Orion Astropreneur Space Academy.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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