Despite half a century of rushing about the Solar System, the Space Age has been a spectator sport for most of humanity. On Wednesday, at a press conference at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Planetary Resources announced its plans to launch a crowdfunded version of its Arkyd 100 space telescope satellite on Kickstarter that will allow donors to beam back self-portraits from space and even control the telescope.
According to the Washington-based startup asteroid-mining company, the Kickstarter campaign is meant to promote public support and participation in space exploration and asteroid mining in particular.
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"It's not about the money, it's about proof of interest," says Eric Anderson, Co-Founder and Co-Chairman of Planetary Resources.
Left to right: Space advocate Hank Green, Co-Chairman of Planetary Resources Eric Anderson, Co-Chairman Peter Diamandis, and President and Chief Engineer Chris Lewicki
Planetary Resources is trying to raise US$1 million for the space telescope, with funds to go toward launching the telescope and covering the operating budget as well as the creation of a web interface and app. The money will also be used to pay the cost of services offered to contributors and to develop an immersive educational curriculum for students. Anything over the goal will be used to expand the program.
Depending on donation levels, contributors will have the opportunity to not only help pay for the telescope, but also to use it by buying observation time. The company says that the interface and app for controlling the craft will be simple to use, yet provide the precision required by scientists.
Another benefit is that contributors will be able to take self-portraits from space. The idea behind the "selfies" is that what people are most interested in is our presence in space. "We all like to see the thing that humans made out in the Cosmos," said Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer.
Toward this end, the satellite will be equipped with a digital display and a camera on a boom that allows the satellite to take self-portraits. For a minimum US$25 contribution, people can send in an image that will be displayed on the telescope’s screen, while the camera takes an image with Earth in the background.
Higher contributions give classrooms, museums and science centers access to the telescope, as well as scientists, artists or anyone who’d like to snap a picture of a planet or other heavenly body. Contribution levels range from a “thank you” at $10, to a $200 package that includes 30 minutes of telescope time, a $1,750 package of images and telescope times for schools and other educational institutions, and a $10,000 package that includes getting the satellite named after you.
The satellite is a variant of Planetary Resources’ Arkyd 100 space telescope. Named after a fictional robot-making company in the Star Wars universe that started out in asteroid mining, the first Arkyd 100 is scheduled to launch for tests in April 2014, while the Kickstarter version’s launch has yet to be determined.
"The spacecraft itself is exactly like the spacecraft we're building for our mission to go out and prospect, rendezvous and characterize near-Earth asteroids,” says Lewicki. It has a 200-mm aperture, f/4 primary optic, can resolve images down to 19 magnitudes and uses lasers for communications with Earth, allowing it to avoid tying up NASA’s Deep Space Network.
After the press conference, we were granted a quick interview with Anderson. We started off by asking him about the tables of people in the museum hall behind the press conference wearing Planetary Resources t-shirts and working at laptops and phones.
Gizmag: First off, what’s going on down here?
Anderson: “We call them our “Vanguard.” The Vanguard are a group who have expressed particularly strong interest in helping the company. They have gone way out of their way to say ‘How can we be involved? Can I volunteer my time? What can I do for you? I’m an expert in web development, in chicken soup, whatever.’ It’s hard to accept and manage that sort of support and making sure that skills and needs match up. We don’t need the money, we’re trying to focus on (asteroid) mining, but we have been quite selective about bringing people into this group. I would say that 50,000 people were interested in this and wanting to get more involved. I think the very difficult thing was bringing this down to about 500. These people here represent a portion of that 500. Some of those people flew here from halfway across the world with some from India and Japan. They are calling people, asking for contributions and getting the word out.”
Gizmag: You’re a private company and you have volunteer supporters. Doesn't that seem strange from the outside?
Anderson: “It really doesn't. This is 2013, The times are changing. When you look at how the world is moving, there’s greater inclusiveness. There’s more technology available now for allowing for things to be shared and activities to be done. Again, these people want to help. We don’t need the money. What we want is public support. What we want to do is to change the world to accept asteroid mining, changing the law, electing politicians to support going out into space, supporting our space program – that’s all a function of public interest. It’s a strategic goal of our company that we get out the message that we need to develop space, we want to make humanity a space-faring species in our lifetimes. This is what it requires, plus passionate supporters. It’s like we’re the Seattle Seahawks and these are our fans.“
Gizmag: It’s ironic that this press conference is taking place in the Museum of Flight and we’re surrounded by the products of the great aerospace companies. Do you feel that being a small company gives you any advantage over them?
Anderson: “If I can say this humbly, it is a huge advantage. If (Co-Chairman) Peter Diamandis or I or Chris decide to change something, tomorrow, it’s done. We can adapt. Our people are the most loyal and capable group I've ever seen. They can work 24 hours ... we're a nimble, small company, we can move quickly and exert a huge amount of passionate strength.”
Gizmag: You've stated that Planetary Resources has recently doubled in size. Do you feel that there’s a danger that a small company like yours might expand too fast and be a victim of its own success?
Anderson: “Oh. gosh, I hope I have to protect against that problem. Everybody does. I’ll be very direct. I've told everyone at every press conference, there's a significant chance that we’ll fail. This is a really hard problem. Not only the technology, but getting the public aligned and the financing in place. All the financing for prospecting, we've got. It’s going ahead and raising the money for mining an asteroid that’s the problem. It’s so hard, so hard. This is a super hard thing. It’s a risk that’s worth taking and we’re taking it. We’re going to do it.”
Gizmag: In light of the recent announcement by NASA about launching an asteroid sample mission, will this impact you negatively?
Anderson: “If anything, it demonstrates two things. First of all, it shows that people are interested in asteroids. Second, because they’re going in 2019, we’ll be setting up propellant depots then. When we launch missions to asteroids for 100th the cost, hopefully, it will give NASA the kick in the pants that it needs. The Space Shuttle cost two billion dollars a launch. SpaceX is now selling seats to NASA for its astronauts for 20 million a launch. That wouldn't have happened had they not proved it. Now NASA can, for the same money as the Space Shuttle, send a hundred missions a year. Hopefully, when we’re out operating at asteroids, perhaps NASA will say, ‘Gee, maybe we should be working with private industry and maybe give them some goals and they can bring back samples or do science or whatever and they can do it in a more commercially feasible way.’”
The Kickstarter project continues until June 30 and at the time of publication was closing in on half its funding goal after just 24 hours.
Part of the Planetary Resources press conference and and overview of the project can be seen in the video below.
Source: Planetary Resources