Planetary Resources Launches Campaign to Launch Private Space Telescope

5/29/13Follow @bromano

In its bid to reinvent the model for space exploration, Planetary Resources is running a Kickstarter campaign to fund the world’s first private space telescope, which they say will underscore public support for going where no one has gone before.

Since unveiling itself to the public at the Museum of Flight a little more than a year ago, the Bellevue, WA-based company has been inundated with some 50,000 e-mails from people who want to get involved with its mission to identify and eventually mine asteroids.

If the campaign reaches its $1 million goal, the company pledges to launch a space telescope that will be available to participants and beneficiaries for private research, education, and space photography.

That is a somewhat arbitrary dollar amount, and much less than the company expects to spend on its ARKYD 100 space telescopes, designed to prospect for asteroids from low-Earth orbit.

“We’ve invested in this technology. We’re going out to the asteroids,” says president and chief engineer Chris Lewicki. “And if there’s enough interest”—demonstrated through the Kickstarter campaign—”we will leverage people’s pledges and we will make this educational and personal engagement opportunity available to anyone that wants it.”

It’s less about the money, say executives of the well-funded company backed by the likes of Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, than it is about building a broad base of support among the public for space exploration, especially at a time when NASA’s budget is being trimmed. Planetary Resources is also embracing the trend in innovation toward transparency—to an extent—and crowd-sourcing.

“One of our goals in being an exponential organization is really using the cutting edge of technology, which means building a crowd and building a community that can go on this epic journey with us, and having that community work with us along the way,” says co-founder and co-chairman Peter Diamandis . “If you’re dependent on innovation from within your company, you’re dead, because we’re living in a world of billions of connected people who are brilliant, so we are looking to really tap the world’s smartest people to really help us in our innovation.”

In the future, the company—staffed literally by rocket scientists with deep NASA experience—may turn to the crowd for data-analysis of asteroids, software, or even hardware development, he says.

“Our goal is to democratize the access to space,” Diamandis says. “This stuff has been for decades militarized and very expensive.”

The Planetary Resources campaign runs through June 30, but had surpassed $200,000 by Wednesday afternoon, just hours after the announcement. The quick success is the latest example of a growing movement to crowd-fund scientific research. Companies such as Seattle-based Microryza, started by University of Washington alumni last year, are giving people a direct line to fund research they feel is important or interesting.

Richard Gayle, a supporter of the Planetary Resources effort and a local evangelist for science, says efforts such as these are rewriting the rules.

“It allows the natural curiosity that we all have to be carried out throughout your whole life,” says Gayle, founder of Spreading Science. “You don’t have to do the research, but it’s much easier to be part of the research community.”

The Kickstarter-supported space telescope would be available to students and teachers for research and education; museums and affiliated groups; academic researchers; and space and photography enthusiasts. Kickstarter donations of $1,750 or more allow people to select a school or museum to have access to curriculum to be built around the telescope, and to actually direct the telescope at higher pledge levels. For a pledge of $25, backers could have a digital photo of their choice displayed on the satellite telescope’s external screen, and photographed by a camera on an external arm—a space self-portrait with Earth in the background.

The estimated delivery date for all the premiums is August 2015, when Planetary Resources hopes to have its first space telescopes in orbit. A launch of a test vehicle is planned for next April.

“While we’re here talking about space telescopes for the crowd, our primary mission is and will always be identification, prospecting, claim, and mining of asteroids,” Diamandis said at a press conference.

The press conference felt at times like a public media fund drive, but with programming that skews more toward “Star Wars” than “Downton Abbey.” On the floor of the Great Gallery of the Museum of Flight—in the shadow of an SR-71 Blackbird spy plane—scores of Planetary Resources employees and supporters were standing by at laptops, ready to spread word of the campaign over social media.

Sitting amid a century of aerospace technology, Diamandis describes the “trifunctional optic” that is at the heart of the ARKYD. It is designed to be capable of detecting faint objects—asteroids zooming through space; and to work with a guidance system to track in and close on the asteroid. It could also be used to return data back to Earth, particularly as missions take these probes farther into the solar system. The spacecraft is turned back toward home and a laser is fired through the optic, to communicate without using large amounts of energy, Diamandis says. In the third function, the laser could be fired at the surface of an asteroid to perform spectral analysis of its composition.

This gave the company another opportunity to demonstrate its sense of fun and humor: Co-founder Eric Anderson put his pinky to his lip and enunciated “lasers” in his best Dr. Evil voice, from the “Austin Powers” movies.

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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  • Richard Gayle

    It was a very interesting day. Besides having a great chance to talk with the (young) people who work at PR, I enjoyed having the opportunity to talk one on one with Peter Diamandis. Lots of fun today.