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How the ultra-rich plan to conquer space (+video)

From asteroid mining to space station taxis, a handful of billionaires have big plans for the final frontier. 

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Stratolaunch Systems plans to use a gargantuan airplane — which boasts six 747 jet engines and a 385-foot (117-m) wingspan — to carry a rocket and space capsule high into the atmosphere. Allen and Rutan envision the system launching commercial and government payloads, and eventually humans, to space.

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The idea is to make spaceflight cheaper and easier, helping open up the heavens, according to Allen, who hopes Stratolaunch can begin operations by 2016.

"We are at the dawn of radical change in the space launch industry," he said in a statement upon the new company's unveiling. "Stratolaunch Systems is pioneering an innovative solution that will revolutionize space travel."

Not replacing NASA

With NASA fighting hard for every budget dollar these days, it's tempting to think that the future of American spaceflight lies in the hands of the billionaires. But the efforts of the super-rich aren't going to supersede NASA anytime soon, said space policy expert John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University.

"They're not replacing NASA," Logsdon told SPACE.com. "They're adding to the nation's space activities."

And while it may seem like the space industry has been flooded by billionaires in the last decade or so, it's important to keep things in perspective, Logsdon added.

"There are a lot of billionaires who aren't investing in space," he said. "Some of these people also buy basketball teams."

Indeed, Forbes tallied 1,226 billionaires around the world in its 2012 count. Allen has a long history of investing in space and science efforts, and he also purchased the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers in 1988.

You can follow SPACE.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter@michaeldwall. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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