We’ve already seen Kickstarter fund some pretty incredible products and services, and most would agree that its made possible things which would otherwise have been too disruptive to come to market naturally (OUYA, we’re looking at you). But everything Kickstarter has funded up until this point has been kid stuff compared to the campaign which just went live this afternoon.
Planetary Resources (the company which has vowed to turn asteroid mining from science fiction to a viable business) has started a campaign for the ARKYD, a commercial space telescope which will not only help search the skies for potentially dangerous (and valuable) asteroids, but open up space to the public on an absolutely unprecedented scale.
Planetary Resources is looking for $1 Million USD to develop, launch, and maintain the ARKYD space telescope. The ARKYD (named for the fictional company in the Star Wars universe that built planet and asteroid detecting probes, such as the one the Empire used to find the planet Hoth) will be an extremely small spacecraft, roughly the size of a shoebox and weighing in at 15kg (around 33 pounds), carrying an actively stabilized 5 megapixel camera with a 200 mm aperture.
While the telescope may be small, it has the extreme advantage of operating outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, orbiting at 300 to 450 miles (around 100 miles higher than the International Space Station). Operating at this altitude eliminates the image distortion which limits the capabilities of even the largest terrestrial telescopes. It will also be able to operate 24 hours a day, as it won’t need to wait until night time to begin its operations.
While the primary goal of the ARKYD will be to find the asteroids that Planetary Resources eventually intends to mine, its secondary function will be to serve as the world’s first “public” space telescope. Anyone who pledges $200 or more during the Kickstarter campaign will be able to request an image of any celestial body, which will be added to the ARKYD’s queue and delivered digitally to the user.
For pledges of $1,750, a school, university, or museum will have access to the ARKYD’s main optics for 10 separate images, receive an educational curriculum designed by Planetary Resources, and an educational poster that explains the technology which makes the ARKYD possible.
This level of access to a space telescope is completely unparalleled. Never before has it been possible for the public, much less an individual, to directly control a spacecraft of this type. Space telescopes, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, have always been the domain of world superpowers. To build and operate one at this cost, and to then turn around and allow the general public to have a say in what it images, is a complete game changer in the way space astronomy is performed.
If the ARKYD is successful, the potential scientific impact is absolutely staggering. The Hubble has captured some of the most impressive astronomical images in history, and has helped scientists learn more about our universe than perhaps any other instrument humanity has built.
But how much more could the Hubble have taught us if every university in the world had a chance to control it for a brief time? What if the public had access to the raw images from the telescope, rather than the processed “glamour shots” NASA releases from the Hubble?
While perhaps not quite as awe-inspiring on a scientific level, the ARKYD offers another extremely unique opportunity for Kickstarter supporters: the ability to take a picture of themselves in space.
By using a novel arrangement of a external screen and a small camera mounted on a boom, the ARKYD is able to display an image of the user’s choosing and then take a photo of that image with the Earth in the background.
For only $25, you can have your own orbital “Selfie” taken by the ARKYD, which is pretty cheap considering the technology involved. A few extra dollars will get you a printed version of the image, and a few more bumps the resolution up.
Will It Fly?
Of course, that’s the most important question: will the ARKYD actually get built and launched?
While nothing is certain, it seems pretty likely that the Kickstarter campaign will be a massive success (they are approaching $250,000 raised out of their $1,000,000 goal, and it hasn’t even been 24 hours yet), and Planetary Resources has big name backing to provide the rest of the funding.
Even so, space missions are perhaps the hardest thing we as a species can attempt, and there are thousands of things that can go wrong. Even if everything goes according to plan and the ARKYD gets built, it could be lost due to a malfunction during launch that would be completely out of Planetary Resources’s hands.
There is definitely inherent risk in a project like this, but it’s a risk worth taking. As other commercial space ventures (such as SpaceX) have learned, there is a world of possibilities if you bring access to space down to the level where the average citizen can participate; you just need to take that first leap and make it possible.