Emily LakdawallaMay 31, 2013

Planetary Resources' Crowdfunded Space Telescope

A fan-funded space telescope, usable by the public? It's an awesome idea, and it appears that a wide swath of the public agrees. Planetary Resources, headed by president and chief engineer Chris Lewicki, announced a Kickstarter project yesterday, with the goal of raising $1 million toward one of their ARKYD space telescopes.  Watch their video:

VideoSeries: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1458134548/arkyd-a-space-telescope-for-everyone-0/widget/video.html

If you're not familiar with Kickstarter, here's a quick explainer: "Project creators set a funding goal and deadline. If people like a project, they can pledge money to make it happen. Funding on Kickstarter is all-or-nothing — projects must reach their funding goals to receive any money."

A million bucks is a lot of money, but it's not actually enough to pay for the whole spacecraft. The money won't actually fund the construction of the spacecraft, but rather its launch, operations, and the development and implementation of software, interfaces, and educational projects that really will enable this to be a space telescope for the public. And since their announcement yesterday they've already gotten halfway to their goal.

A silly-yet-awesome feature of the crowdfunded ARKYD is the "space selfie." The spacecraft will carry a little digital screen and a teeny camera. Pledge $25 and you will be able to submit media to be photographed while in space, with Earth as a backdrop. I pledged my $25 toward a "space selfie" for my girls. But I want to point out to everyone that if you pledge a little more -- more than $99 -- to support ARKYD, you'll automatically get a year's membership in The Planetary Society. 

"Space Selfie" from ARKYD 100
"Space Selfie" from ARKYD 100 Image: PRI

Silly space selfie aside, I'm actually quite excited about ARKYD's use as a space camera. I talked with Chris over the weekend while we were both at Spacefest and he told me the camera would likely be used for (among many other things) regular monitoring of Jupiter and Saturn. That right there will be tremendously productive scientifically. Jupiter and Saturn researchers are already very dependent on amateur astronomers for monitoring of the giant planets' storm activity. The ARKYD's telescope is not enormous -- 20 centimeters or 8 inches -- but here's what a good amateur can do photographing Jupiter from Earth with an 8-inch telescope. ARKYD's data set on Jupiter and Saturn will be a scientific bonanza. The Bad Astronomer has some comments about its usefulness for other kinds of astronomy.

Since they've already received more than half a million bucks in pledges, it's worth asking what they'll do if people pledge more than a million. On Kickstarter, projects set up things called "stretch goals" to specify what extra pledge money would be used for. The Kickstarter page text doesn't list any for ARKYD but one such goal is mentioned in their infographic (which I've embedded at the end of this post). As with any space mission, the main limitation for data volume is data transmission. In its low-Earth orbit ARKYD will be flying fast, and communications opportunities brief. Extra money will fund the establishment of additional ground stations to beef up the downlink volume. The infographic doesn't specify what each additional ground station will cost.

I do want to caution people who pledge money to this project. A lot of people don't understand Kickstarter or the nature of envelope-pushing projects like these. Kickstarter is not a store. Cracked.com has a great article on this, including:

As much as 75 percent of successful Kickstarter campaigns miss their deadlines, in particular the ones that end up getting way overfunded. This isn't because of scamming or incompetence; it's because extra resources increase the size of a project and make it take more time, which is something that most people simply cannot understand. We feel like Kickstarter is a store (which, by its own admission, it is not), and when we give something money, by God, we had better see some immediate return. When you click the "Pledge" button for Summer School 2, you aren't ordering a copy of that movie from Amazon; you're calling that movie into existence, like a warlock flinging dollar bills into a dragon skull brazier. And it takes time for that particular spell to work. Read more>

Kickstarter is a place that connects people with ideas with people who are willing to support those ideas. It will take time to get the crowd-funded ARKYD off the ground. It is possible, in fact even likely, that Planetary Resources will hit some snag somewhere along the way that will prevent them from meeting their hoped-for timeline. Something truly terrible could happen, like they could do all their development and then the rocket launching the spacecraft fails and nobody gets anything. Hopefully that won't happen, but still: by pledging your support, you are using your money to tell them you think this is a good idea, and you are supporting them whether it works or not. Just like all of the projects we do here at The Planetary Society. (We've been in the space project crowdfunding business for more than thirty years. We're a good place to donate, too!) We try really, really, really hard to make good on our plans, and I'm sure they will too. Chris has always impressed me as a guy who dreams big but works on achievable, practical steps toward those dreams. But if ARKYD crashes and I don't get my space selfie, I know I won't get my money back.

(But if you do pledge at any level higher than $99, you'll get that Planetary Society membership no matter what happens. Just sayin'.)

ARKYD Kickstarter infographic
ARKYD Kickstarter infographic Image: PRI

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