Planetary Resources prepares to make a giant leap in space crowdfunding

Arkyd-100 in orbit

Illustration of a Planetary Resources Arkyd-100 spacecraft in orbit. The company is starting a crowdfunding campaign today to raise money to provide public access to one of these spacecraft. (credit: Planetary Resources, Inc.)

Planetary Resources, the Seattle-area startup that revealed plans just over a year ago to develop a series of small spacecraft to prospect and, eventually, extract resources from near Earth asteroids, is announcing plans today to raise $1 million through crowdfunding to provide public access to one of its first spacecraft.

The company is using an event in Seattle today to reveal plans for what it calls “the world’s first crowdfunded space telescope”: access to one of its Arkyd-100 series small spacecraft in low Earth orbit specifically designed for public outreach. Backers of the crowdfunding campaign, run through the Kickstarter site, will have access to the space telescope for observations or simply a commemorative image, depending on the size of their donation.

“The idea started after our announcement last year,” said Chris Lewicki, president of Planetary Resources, in an interview Tuesday. “We were totally overwhelmed by the amount of interest we had in what we were doing.” The company, he said, got thousands of unsolicited job applications and even offers to invest, among other indications of interest in the company. “We kicked a number of ideas around with what we could do with it. More and more, as we started to talk to people in the community, this idea took shape.”

The campaign offers a range of options for participation depending on funding level. The $5,000 “Education Ambassador” and $1,750 “Education Supporter” options will allow a K-12 school access to the telescope for a series of observations. A $150 “Private Astronomer” option gives an individual an opportunity to take up to a 30-minute exposure of any celestial object (excluding the Sun), and a $99 “Help Find Killer Asteroids & Alien Galaxies!” level donates five minutes of observing time to students or citizen scientists, with a membership to The Planetary Society included.

At lower funding levels, Planetary Resources is offering what they call the “#SpaceSelfie”. The Arkyd spacecraft will be modified to include an external camera and small display. For $25, a picture of the donor’s choosing will be shown on the display, and an image of it and the spacecraft will then be taken by the external camera, with the Earth and space serving as the backdrop. This is, Lewicki said, designed to be something fun for someone interested in space. “It’s designed to connect everyone’s inherent interest in space with something that’s easy to do,” he said. “It’s something that, as we’ve been talking with people about it, everyone thinks it’s a really cool idea.”

The $1 million Planetary Resources is seeking is enough to develop the modified version of the Arkyd-100 spacecraft, as well as tools to allow people to access the telescope and educational material. At that level, Lewicki said, the spacecraft would likely be used only part time for public imaging, with Planetary Resources using the excess time for its own technology demonstration and other uses. However, if the crowdfunding campaign exceeds their goal, the additional funding would go to support additional use of the telescope by donors, including activating additional ground stations to downlink images. “It’s possible there’s enough interest in the campaign to take up most of the resources of the satellite,” he said. “And if it’s that successful, we’ll just keep building more.”

The campaign represents a major leap in space-related crowdfunding. Past efforts have raised up to about $100,000 for nanosatellites and other efforts. Earlier this year, Golden Spike tried to raise $240,000 through another crowdfunding site, Indiegogo, but ended up receiving less than $20,000.

In the case of Planetary Resources’s campaign, Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing affair: if they fall short of their $1 million goal, they receive none of the money. If that happens, Lewicki said they’ll proceed with their current plans, including development of a small prototype satellite, called Arkyd 3, that is planned for launch next year.

Lewicki, though, hopes the thrill of being able to participate in a mission—to actually control a spacecraft, for those who select those reward levels—will excite the public enough to push them over the top. “As much as I enjoy doing space exploration, I enjoy sharing it as well,” he said. One of the most incredible experiences he’s had in his career, he said, was his involvement on the Mars Exploration Rover and Phoenix Mars Lander missions, being able to tell a spacecraft what to do and to see the results. “We’ll be able to give anyone who wants it that experience. That’s the thing I’m super excited about.”

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