‘Space Selfie’ Telescope Could Hunt Alien Planets … If It Raises A Cool $2M

A crowdfunded telescope — best known for offering “space selfies” for backers as an incentive to send money — is now considering a search for alien planets.

Planetary Resources Inc. (the proposed asteroid miners) announced a new “stretch goal” for its asteroid-hunting Arkyd-100 telescope.

If the company can raise $2 million — double its original goal — it promises to equip the Arkyd telescope to look at star systems for exoplanets. The project is still short the $1 million required to receive any money, but the target appears to be close enough now to give Planetary Resources confidence that more funds will come for new initiatives.

The motivation for planet hunting was mechanical trouble besetting the famous Kepler space telescope. Kepler recently lost the second of its four reaction wheels, devices that are used to stabilize the telescope in space as it seeks alien worlds.

Artist's conception of the Kepler Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s conception of the Kepler Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Because Kepler needs at least three reaction wheels to point towards targets, its future is uncertain. Some planet searching is still possible with ground-based observatories, however.

“With NASA’s recent equipment failure on the Kepler telescope (RIP, Kepler!), our search for extrasolar planets nearly came to a grinding halt. If we can meet our stretch goal, we can resume some of this progress by enhancing the Arkyd,” Arkyd organizers stated on their Kickstarter campaign website.

“We’re partnering with exoplanet researchers at MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] to equip citizen scientists like YOU with the tools to join a search that’s captivated us for generations.”

Arkyd would use two methods to hunt down planets:

Transiting, or seeing the dip in a star’s brightness when a planet passes in front of it;

Gravitational microlensing, or finding planets by measuring how the gravity of the star (and its planets) distorts light from stars and galaxies behind.

With 19 days to go, Arkyd is at about $857,000 of its preliminary $1 million goal that it must reach to receive any money.

If it can raise $1.3 million, Planetary Resources proposes to build a ground station at an undisclosed “educational partner” that would double the download speed of data from the orbiting observatory.

The project has more than 9,500 backers. Two more stretch goals will be revealed if Arkyd receives 11,000 backers and 15,000 backers, Planetary Resources stated.

More information on the Arkyd Kickstarter campaign is here.

Planetary Resources Looks to Crowdfund a Space Telescope for the Public

How much would you donate to have access to a space telescope … or just to have an orbital “selfie”? Planetary Resources, Inc., the company that wants to mine asteroids, has launched a Kickstarter campaign for the world’s first crowdfunded space telescope. They say their Arkyd-100 telescope will provide unprecedented public access to space and place the most advanced exploration technology into the hands of students, scientists and a new generation of citizen explorers.

To make their campaign successful, they need to raise $1 million in Kickstarter pledges by the end of June 2013. Less than 2 hours into their campaign, they have raised over $100,000.

Last year, Planetary Resources revealed their plans to develop a series of small spacecraft to do a little ‘space prospecting’ which would eventually allow them to mine near Earth asteroids, extracting valuable resources.

Their announcement today of the crowdfunded Arkyd-100 space telescope will allow them to begin the search for asteroid they could mine, while involving the public and providing access to to the space telescope “for inspiration, exploration and research” or have a commemorative photo of those who donate displayed above the Earth, such as the image above.

During a webcast today to announce the Kickstarter campaign, Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer for Planetary Resources said the telescope would have 1 arcsecond resolution, with the benefit of being above atmosphere.

A wide array of scientists, space enthusiasts and even Bill Nye the Science Guy have voiced their support for Planetary Resources’ new public space telescope.

Artist concept of the Arkyd telescope in space. Credit: Planetary Resources Inc.
Artist concept of the Arkyd telescope in space. Credit: Planetary Resources Inc.

“The ARKYD crowdfunding campaign is extraordinary,” said Sara Seager, Ph.D., Professor of Physics and Planetary Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “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.”

The space telescope is being built by Planetary Resources’ technical team, who worked on every recent U.S. Mars lander and rover.

“I’ve operated rovers and landers on Mars, and now I can share that incredible experience with everyone,” said Lewicki. “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.”

Planetary Resources will use the proceeds from the Kickstarter campaign to launch the telescope, fund the creation of the public interface, cover the fulfillment costs for all of the products and services listed in the pledge levels, and fund the immersive educational curriculum for students everywhere. Any proceeds raised beyond the goal will allow for more access to classrooms, museums and science centers, and additional use by individual Kickstarter backers.

However, if they fail to reach the $1 million goal, they receive none of the money. According to Jeff Foust at the NewSpace Journal quoted Lewicki as saying, if that happens, they’ll proceed with their current plans, including development of a small prototype satellite, called Arkyd 3, that is planned for launch next year.

Here are a few of the donation levels:

• Your Face in Space – the #SpaceSelfie: For US$25, the team will upload an image of the campaign backer’s choice to display on the ARKYD, snap a photo of it with the Earth in the background, and transmit it to the backer. This space ‘photo booth’ allows anyone to take (or gift) a unique Space Selfie image that connects a personal moment with the cosmos in an unprecedented, yet tangible way.

• Explore the Cosmos: Higher pledge levels provide students, astronomers and researchers with access to the ARKYD main optic for detailed observations of the cosmos, galaxies, asteroids and our Solar System.

• Support Education Worldwide: At the highest levels, pledgers can offer the K-12 school, science center, university, or any interested group of their choice access to the ARKYD for use in interactive educational programming to strengthen STEM education worldwide. The full pledge list and ARKYD technical specifications can be found here.

See all the levels at Planetary Resources’ Kickstarter Page.

“When we launched Planetary Resources last year, we had an extraordinary response from the general public,” said Peter Diamandis, Co-Founder and Co-Chairman of Planetary Resources, Inc.. “Tens of thousands of people contacted us and wanted to be involved. We are using this Kickstarter campaign as a mechanism to engage the community in a productive way.”

During a webcast today to make their Kickstarter announcement Diamandis said, “In the last 50 years, space exploration has been led by national governmental agencies with their own set of priorities. Imagine not having to wait for Congress to decide what missions will fly!”

ARKYD Infographic

The Most Profitable Asteroid Is…

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With the recent announcement of the asteroid mining company, Planetary Resources, some of the most-asked questions about this enticing but complex endeavor include, what asteroids do we mine? Which are the easiest asteroids to get to? Could it really be profitable?

While Planetary Resources officials said they hope to identify a few promising targets within a decade, the initial answers to those questions are available now on a new website that estimates the costs and rewards of mining rocks in space. Called Asterank, the website uses available data from multiple scientific sources on asteroid mass and composition to try and compute which asteroids would be the best targets for mining operations.

So, which asteroids are most profitable, valuable, easily accessible and cost effective?

The winners are, according to Asterank:

Most Profitable: 253 Mathilde, a 52.8 km-diameter C-type (carbonaceous) asteroid that has an estimated value of over $100 trillion and estimated profit of $9.53 trillion (USD)
Most Cost Effective: 2000 BM19, a very small O-type asteroid (less than 1 km wide) that makes several close approaches to Earth. Its estimated value is $18.50 trillion and an estimated profit of $3.55 trillion.
Most Valuable: 253 Mathilde
Most Accessible: 2009 WY7, another small asteroid with regular close approaches of less than 1 AU. This is an S-type asteroid, a silicaceous or “stony” object that has a high accessibility score on Asterank of 7.6577.

Asterank combines both the economic and scientific features of over 580,000 asteroids in our solar system, looking specifically for platinum-group metals and water. It was created by Ian Webster, a software engineer in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“I’ve always had a strong interest in astronomy and especially space exploration,” Webster said via an email to Universe Today. “The commercialization of space through ventures like asteroid mining really excites me because I believe it’ll open space to the rest of us and improve human quality of life. My day job is at a startup unrelated to space, but my hobbies include building rockets and many side projects like this one. I have a lot of fun applying computer science in different ways and I hope that Asterank will educate and inspire people.”

Webster provides a caveat, however, to the rankings of the top 100 asteroids in each category.

“Scientists know shockingly little about the composition of asteroids,” he writes on the website. “Visit JPL’s Small Body Database and you will notice how sparse information is.”

So, this mean that there aren’t really ‘experts’ in this field, and even those most knowledgeable about asteroids likely don’t have the numbers needed to completely and accurately estimate the true value of an asteroid or the cost of mining it — “which is why Planetary Resources is going to spend years or even decades investing in LEO-telescopes and data-gathering flybys before they ever touch an asteroid,” Webster said.

Webster has used databases, websites, books and other publications to get as much accurate, up-to-date information as possible, but even then, he said everything on the website is a rough estimation.

“The primary purpose of this site is to broadly educate and inspire, rather than provide completely accurate data — which is currently impossible,” he said. “I created the site in response to the announcement of Planetary Resources. “I should point out that nearly all the measurements and hard data come from the scientists at NASA JPL, but I had a lot of fun putting the site together.”

And it is fun to peruse the various categories and see what asteroids make the top of each category.

The ranking takes into account the value of the materials on the asteroids such as metals, volatile compounds, and water; the costs of getting to an asteroid and moving the raw materials: and the comparative savings and potential profit, which at this point are very hypothetical, taking into account processing and moving raw material.

“We really don’t know yet how much it will cost to mine an object millions of miles away,” Webster said.

While this website is a first step, it offers an exciting and enjoyable initial look at the potential commercial viability of space mining.

Check out Asterank.