An artist's rendering of an ARKYD telescope, which will be used to identify near-Earth asteroids rich in raw materials

Crowd-funding for public access space telescope

Asteroid mining company Planetary Resources has launched a crowd-funding project to launch a public access space telescope.

The privately-owned firm, backed in part by Google's founders, plans to build and operate telescopes to hunt for asteroids orbiting near Earth and robotic spacecraft to mine them for precious metals, water and other materials.

But the firm also plans to offer those who pledge money to the project the chance to use a display on the satellite to take a picture of themselves in space, or for those at higher pledge levels to use the satellite’s main optic to explore the cosmos.

"All we are asking is for the public to tell us that they want something," company co-founder Eric Anderson told reporters during a webcast press conference yesterday.

"We're not going to spend our time and resources to do something if people don't want it and really the only way to prove that it's something people want is to ask them for money.”

The Kickstarter campaign complements the company's ongoing efforts to design and build its first telescope, called ARKYD, to identify near-Earth asteroids that are commercially viable for the retrieval of raw materials like water, precious metals and more.

For a pledge of $25, participants can make use of a "space photo booth" by sending a picture to be displayed like a billboard on the side of the telescope with Earth in the background. Its image would then be snapped by a remote camera and transmitted back.

Starting at $200, students, astronomers and researchers can use the telescope to look at an astronomical object and at the highest levels pledgers can offer any interested school or group of their choice access to the ARKYD for use in interactive educational programming.

“I’ve operated rovers and landers on Mars, and now I can share that incredible experience with everyone. People of any age and background will be able to point the telescope outward to investigate our Solar System, deep space, or join us in our study of near-Earth asteroids,” says Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer at Planetary Resources.

Investors in the firm include Google chief executive Larry Page and chairman Eric Schmidt, as well as Ross Perot Jr., chairman of real estate development firm Hillwood and The Perot Group.

But Sara Seager, Professor of Physics and Planetary Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the campaign ushers in a new economic model for space exploration.

“The ARKYD crowdfunding campaign is extraordinary,” she says. “Not only does the telescope have the technical capability to increase our understanding of space, but it can be placed in orbit for an incredibly low cost. That is an economic breakthrough that will accelerate space-based research now and in the future.”

Planetary Resources is not the first space start-up to turn to crowd-funding. Colorado-based Golden Spike, which plans commercial human expeditions to the moon, has launched two initiatives on Indiegogo, another Internet-based funding platform.

Golden Spike exceeded a $75,000 goal to start a sister firm, called Uwingu, designed to funnel profits into space projects, but fell far short of a $240,000 target for spacesuits for Golden Spike's first moon run.

Hyper-V Technologies of Virginia turned to Kickstarter to raise nearly $73,000 to help develop a plasma jet electric thruster. STAR Systems in Phoenix, Arizona, raised $20,000 for work on a hybrid rocket motor for its suborbital Hermes spaceplane.

Last year, Washington-based LiftPort ended an $8,000 Kickstarter campaign with more than $100,000 to demonstrate how robots could climb a 1.2-mile "space elevator" that uses tethers or cables held aloft by a large helium balloon instead of rockets to reach space.

"I think crowd-funding is a new kind of bike and people are trying and willing to ride it, some successfully, some not as successfully, but I think it's here to stay," says Golden Spike founder and planetary scientist Alan Stern.

"These companies like Kickstarter and Indiegogo and RocketHub, they seem to be some kind of marketing distribution system that lets people with an idea put it out there. Previously people didn't know how to do that except run an ad in a newspaper. It's a capability we just didn't have five years ago."

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