Forget Mars, Now You Can Kickstart an Antimatter Propulsion System to Another Star!

When it comes to the future of space exploration, one of the biggest questions is, “how and when will we travel to the nearest star?” And while space agencies have been pondering this question and coming up with proposals for decades, none of them have advanced beyond the theory stage. For the most part, their efforts has been focused on possible missions to Mars and the outer Solar System.

But there are some people, like Dr. Gerald Jackson, who are working towards making an interstellar mission possible in the near future. He and his research team, which have been funded by NASA in the past, are looking to create an antimatter engine that will be capable of reaching (or exceeding) 5% the speed of light. Towards this end, they have launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund their efforts.

As advanced propulsion concepts go, antimatter has quite a lot going for it. As propulsion goes, it has the highest specific energy of any known method, 100 times more than fission/fusion reactions, and 10 billion times more than chemical propellants. It is also the most fuel-efficient, requiring mere milligrams of antimatter to produce the same amount of energy as tons of chemical fuel.

In 2002, he co-founded a limited-liability company (HBar Technologies) for the sake of developing commercial markets for antimatter. In 2002, NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) awarded Dr. Jackson and his company $75,000 to develop a mission concept that could traverse 250 AUs of space within 10 years time, and with a fuel supply of 10 kg.

These specifications essentially called for the creation of an antimatter rocket that could travel as far as the heliopause within a decade’s time. The result was a propulsion concept that relied on a beam that would fire focused antiprotons onto a sail to generate propulsion. This sail would measure 5 meters in diameter and be composed of a carbon backing on one side and uranium foil on the other (measuring 15 and 296 microns thick, respectively).

The solar system and its nearby galactic neighborhood are illustrated here on a logarithmic scale extending (from < 1 to) 1 million Astornomical Units (AU). Credit: NASA/JPL
Illustration of the solar system and its nearby galactic neighborhood on a logarithmic scale extending (from < 1 to) 1 million AU. Credit: NASA/JPL

When a pulse of antiprotons is annihilated against a small section of the uranium side, the resulting fission causes momentum. As Dr. Jackson explained to Universe Today via email:

“Note that antiprotons have a negative electrical charge, similar to an electron. When the antiprotons enter the sail, they displace an electron orbiting an uranium nucleus. Because antiprotons and electrons do not share any quantum numbers, the antiproton immediately cascades down into the atomic ground state, causing a high probability of interaction between the antiproton and either a proton or neutron within the nucleus.

“On average, a fission event results in the creation of two daughter nuclei of roughly equal mass. These daughters travel in opposite directions with a kinetic energy of 1 MeV per proton or neutron. Because the daughters are charged, the one travelling further into the sail is absorbed and transfers is forward momentum. The other daughter flies into space with an exhaust velocity of 4.6% of lightspeed. This selective transfer of momentum is thrust.”

Unfortunately, due to the budget environment of the time, the NIAC was forced to cancel its funding after a second round had been granted. Because of this, Dr. Jackson and his colleagues are now seeking public support so that they may finish their work on the experimental sail and prepare it for exposure to an antiproton beam.

Diagram showing Hbar's concept for a antimatter-driven propulsion system. Credit: antimatterdrive.org
Diagram showing Hbar’s concept for a antimatter-driven propulsion system. Credit: antimatterdrive.org

Much like Project Starshot (whom they acknowledge on their campaign page), Jackson and his team are looking to produce an interstellar mission proposal that does not involve shortcuts (i.e. warp drive, wormholes, star gates, etc.). Starshot, as you may recall, calls for a wafer craft and a laser-driven lightsail that would be capable of reaching speeds of up to 20% the speed of light, thus making the journey to Alpha Centauri in 20 years.

In the same vein, a antiproton-driven sail that could reach speeds of 5% the speed of light or more would be capable of making it to Alpha Centauri (or Proxima Centauri) in about 90 years time. All the while, the science behind it would remain within the realm of established physics, being consistent with Newton’s Laws of Motion and Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity.

“The revolutionary aspect of the antimatter-driven sail is that the antimatter is not the fuel, but rather the spark plug that initiates fission reactions,” said Jackson. “Because the fission reactions can produce thrust without heavy shielding or other structures, the mass of the propulsion system can be comparable to the mass of the instrument package.”

Project Starshot, an initiative sponsored by the Breakthrough Foundation, is intended to be humanity's first interstellar voyage. Credit: breakthroughinitiatives.org
Project Starshot, an initiative sponsored by the Breakthrough Foundation, is another concept for making humanity’s first interstellar voyage. Credit: breakthroughinitiatives.org

To see their project through, Jackson and his colleagues are hoping to raise $200,000. Should they prove successful, they hope to mount follow-up campaigns to finance a series of validation experiments, storage demonstrations, and mission details. In the end, their goal is nothing less than making antimatter propulsion a reality, which they hope will one day lead interstellar mission.

“We expect that these campaigns will provide the data needed to convince people to fund full scale antimatter production and an actual mission to a nearby solar system,” Jackson added. “The goal of those early interstellar missions is to provide information about these other solar systems, such as whether they are habitable or inhabited.  If the latter, we will want to study or interact with those life forms in follow-on missions.  If habitable and not inhabited, we need sufficient information to assure the success of a manned migratory mission.”

As of the penning of this article, Jackson and his colleagues have raised $672 of their $200,000 goal. However, the campaign launched only a few days ago and will remain open for another 25 days. For those interesting in following their progress, or have an interest in donating to their cause, check out the links below.

Africa’s First Mission to the Moon Announced

Africa is home to 7 out of 10 of the world’s fastest-growing economies. It’s population is also the “youngest” in the world, with 50% of the population being 19 years old or younger. And amongst these young people are scores of innovators and entrepreneurs who are looking to bring homegrown innovation to their continent and share it with the outside world.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with the #Africa2Moon Mission, a crowdfunded campaign that aims to send a lander or orbiter to the Moon in the coming years.

Spearheaded by the Foundation for Space Development – a non-profit organization headquartered in Capetown, South Africa – the goal of this project is to fund the development of a robotic craft that will either land on or establish orbit around the Moon. Once there, it will transmit video images back to Earth, and then distribute them via the internet into classrooms all across Africa.

In so doing, the project’s founders and participants hope to help the current generation of Africans realize their own potential. Or, as it says on their website: “The #Africa2Moon Mission will inspire the youth of Africa to believe that ‘We Can Reach for the Moon’ by really reaching for the moon!”

Through their crowdfunding and a social media campaign (Twitter hashtag #Africa2Moon) they hope to raise a minimum of $150,000 for Phase I, which will consist of developing the mission concept and associated feasibility study. This mission concept will be developed collaboratively by experts assembled from African universities and industries, as well as international space experts, all under the leadership of the Mission Administrator – Professor Martinez.

The ZACube was one of several cubesats launched with the help of the South African Space Council. Credit: SA Space Council
The ZACube-1 was one of several cubesats launched under the direction of the South African Space Council. Here, an artist’s rendering of the cubesat pays homage to Nelson Mandela. Credit: SA Space Council

Martinez is a veteran when it comes to space affairs. In addition to being the convener for the space studies program at the University of Cape Town, he is also the Chairman of the South African Council for Space Affairs (the national regulatory body for space activities in South Africa). He is joined by Jonathan Weltman, the Project Administrator, who is both an aeronautical engineer and the current CEO of the Foundation for Space Development.

Phase I is planned to run from Jan to Nov 2015 and will be the starting point for Phase II of #Africa2Moon, which will be a detailed mission design. At this point, the #Africa2Moon mission planners and engineering team will determine precisely what will be needed to see it through to completion and to reach the Moon.

Beyond inspiring young minds, the program also aims to promote education in the four major fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (aka STEM). Towards this end, they have pledged to commit 25% of all the funds they raise towards STEM education through a series of #Africa2Moon workshops for educators and students. In addition, numerous public engagement activities will be mounted in partnership with other groups committed to STEM education, science awareness, and outreach.

Africa is so often thought of as a land in turmoil – a place that is perennially plagued by ethnic violence, dictators, disease, drought, and famine. This popular misconception belies very positive facts about the growing economy of world’s second-largest and second-most populous continent.

That being said, all those working on the #Africa2Moon project hope it will enable future generations of Africans to bridge the humanitarian and economic divide and end Africa’s financial dependence on the rest of the world. It is also hoped that the mission will provide a platform for one or more scientific experiments, contribute to humankind’s knowledge of the moon, and form part of Africa’s contribution to global space exploration activities.

The project’s current list of supporters include the SpaceLab at the University of Cape Town, The South African Space Association, Women in Aerospace Africa, The Cape Town Science Centre, Space Commercial Services Group, Space Advisory Company, and the Space Engineering Academy. They have also launched a seed-funding campaign drive through its partnership with the UN Foundation’s #GivingTuesday initiative.

For more information, go to the Foundation’s website, or check out the mission’s Indiegogo or CauseVox page.

Further Reading: Foundation for Space Development

Kickstarting the Youngest Astronomers with “Universe in a Box”

Most children are naturally interested in science. And if you’ve ever heard a five-year-old recite complicated dinosaur names, or all the planets in the Solar System (possibly with a passionate plea on behalf of poor Pluto!), you will know that when it comes to children and science, dinosaurs and astronomy lead the field.

I don’t know about paleontologists, but astronomers are investing serious time and effort to build on children’s fascination with the universe. Probably the most successful program of this kind is “Universe Awareness” (UNAWE), aimed at bringing astronomy to children aged 4 to 10 – and in particular to children in underprivileged communities. To help teachers and educators bring astronomy to their kindergarten and elementary school classrooms, UNAWE created a teaching kit: “Universe in a Box,” with materials for over 40 age-appropriate astronomy-related activities.

UNAWE has built 1,000 of these boxes, subjected them to intensive field-testing in classrooms around the world, and have now begun a kickstarter campaign to raise (at least) $15,000 to ship many of the boxes to underprivileged communities around the world, and to provide training for teachers and educators on how to use the boxes to maximum effect. Here’s what they have to say:

I freely admit to being biased – I work at Haus der Astronomie, a center for astronomy education and outreach in Germany, where Cecilia Scorza and Natalie Fischer, two astronomers-turned-outreach-scientists, developed the precursor for “Universe in a box”, including many of the hands-on activities (in cooperation with the local volunteer association Astronomieschule e.V., to give credit where it’s due). And I’m proud that George Miley, Pedro Russo and the UNAWE team (which includes Cecilia and Natalie) have taken this idea and turned it into a truly global resource. I’ve seen the “Universe in a box” work its magic (pardon: its science) on numerous children who’ve come to visit our center – and have heard many good things from educators around the world who are using the box.

So please help the UNAWE team to get the boxes where they belong – out into the classrooms! Also, help them help teachers and educators to make optimal use of the boxes.

The kickstarter currently stands at a bit over $8,000 of their $15,000 goal. It runs until Tuesday, June 10, 2014, at 5 am EDT.

Here’s the kickstarter link again.

Fun New Kickstarter is a Space Station Detector

There’s a coffee shop in Pasadena, California that has a cool little device that lights up whenever the International Space Station is going to passover head, providing a little science lesson for patrons of the cafe. Called “ISS-Above,” the device is the brainchild of Liam Kennedy, a web designer, amateur astronomer and space enthusiast, and there’s a new Kickstarter for the project that will make the device available to anyone.

“It’s both an awareness thing, so more people get to know the Space Station is in their sky,” says Kennedy, “and it’s also to let those who are “up there” know that we know and appreciate what they are doing!”

That’s because not only does it light up when the ISS is nearby, it can also Tweet a message to the Space Station. Plus it has its own built-in web server to give you a ton of information about current and future passes.

It runs on a Raspberry Pi system with a memory card that can be loaded with your location information, so if you are a computer geek, this is totally up your alley! LEDs light up to alert you to the space station’s presence. There are different case options depending on how you’d like your own personal ISS-Above to look, including some colorful 3D-printed options.

But aren’t there already apps available that do this?

“True,” said Kennedy, “and I probably have almost all of them,” talking about the apps that will tell you when the ISS is going to be passing by. ”

“Those are great – BUT – that’s not what ISS-Above is about,” Kennedy said. “I wanted something small; a physical device that can just sit on a window sill or on a shelf beside the TV and light up every time the ISS is making a pass in my sky. Having these in my house for the past few months really has me understand the difference it makes to see just how frequently it passes nearby.”

For this Kickstarter, there are reward options that contain a complete ISS-Above and one of two types of colorful LED display devices, the PiGlow or the Ledborg. The PiGlow is unique with it’s circular/spiral layout while the Ledborg is intensely bright.

A complete ISS-Above device preloaded with your location is available for kicking in to the Kickstarter for $115. If you just want the memory card with your location and custom Twitter login for sending a Tweet to the ISS, then the price is just $42. There are several other options as well. The project has until February 27 to meet its funding goal of $5,000.

The device got its start when Kennedy decided to build his grandkids a device that would alert them when the ISS was going over their own backyards. He brought a sample of ISS-Above to the San Diego Mini Maker’s Faire and people went absolutely crazy for the device. (here’s their writeup about it) Then ISS-Above got noticed by Hackaday and Reddit

You can see many of the Tweets from people who already have the device at the @ISSAboveYOU Twitter feed.

Why a Kickstarter? Kennedy said that while the hardware for the device can be assembled by anyone, he still has many people who have asked him to provide a complete package already setup for their location. But he can only do that if there is enough volume. “Volume means I can purchase the components with lower shipping costs and more efficiently configure and assemble complete units,” he said.

His ultimate goal is to have ISS-Above devices in all space/science museums and public observatories around the world, and for that he needs to develop public display versions of ISS-Above utilizing more extensive LED/graphics capabilities. But again, he needs support to make that possible.

You can read more about the ISS-Above Kickstarter and the pledge rewards here.

How the ISS-Above works. Image courtesy Liam Kennedy.
How the ISS-Above works. Image courtesy Liam Kennedy.

‘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

Independent Filmmaker Wants to Kickstart America’s Space Program

“If Kennedy said ‘we will go to the Moon…some time before the century ends,’ what is… what is that? That’s not ambition. That’s pandering.”
– Neil deGrasse Tyson, Fight for Space

Here we are on the 43rd anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing, with no more shuttles flying, slashed space program budgets and no real targeted plan to get people off this world and onto another. American students score abysmally in science and math, and the general public thinks NASA is dead. What’s happened to America’s drive? What’s happened to the nation’s sense of wonder, its devotion to science, engineering, education and its man-on-the-Moon motivation?

Film producer Paul Hildebrandt wants to find out. But he needs your help.

Hildebrandt and his team from Eventide Visuals in Chico, CA, are creating an independent feature-length documentary about America’s space program, called “Fight for Space”. It’s not a collection of launch videos and CGI solar system shots, though; Hildebrandt is digging deeper into what originally made the U.S. space program great — and what has happened to it since then.

“We are producing a documentary that will examine the reasons why our space program is not all it can be. We are also going to show that space IS worth the time, money, and energy that it needs, not for only exploration and scientific reasons but for economic, planetary security, and cultural reasons as well,” writes Hildebrandt.

Hildebrandt has been attending space symposiums and traveling to interview key figures in science and space outreach, like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Robert Zubrin and Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. He’s talked with scientists, astronauts, educators and regular everyday Americans about the importance of the space program. But in order for the Fight to continue, he needs our help.

Fortunately, that’s what Kickstarter is here for. Fight for Space is looking to get a little backing from interested and like-minded space fans to keep the process moving, and hopefully see the film become a fully produced, publicized, and possibly broadcasted reality.

“With your help we can bring awareness to this issue and come closer to making our space program a priority for this country once again.”

You can pledge any amount, from $10 to $10,000 or more (and see the incremental rewards of doing so) on the Fight for Space Kickstarter page here, and visit the Fight for Space website here.

“Please, support our film by donating above and share this project with your friends, family, and anyone you know who cares about space exploration or cares about the future economic and national security of this country.”
– Paul Hildebrandt, Fight for Space producer

Kickstart Your DNA (And a Rover) To The Moon!


Omega Envoy, the non-profit research lab Earthrise Space, Inc.’s team competing for the Google Lunar X PRIZE, has launched a Kickstarter project to help fund a 4-axis CNC milling machine needed to continue development on their proposed lunar rover. CNC machines don’t come cheap, but in typical Kickstarter fashion Earthrise Space is offering incremental rewards to anyone who donates to their project — from mentions on their site to t-shirts, Moon globes and facility tours (and even 5-gallon tubs of duck sauce) and, if you’re lucky enough to have deep pockets and a desire to help a student training ground get their designs off the ground, you can even have your DNA sent to the Moon!

From the Google Lunar X PRIZE article:

For the first time in human history, individuals will have the opportunity to send a sample of their DNA to the lunar surface. For a pledged donation of $10,000 or more, ESI will collect your DNA sample, package it into a storage container mounted on the company’s Lunar Descent Vehicle and fly it to the surface of the moon where it will be preserved for all time.

“We are excited to be exploring new approaches for fundraising and for public engagement, including through the crowdsourcing Kickstarter platform,” said ESI’s Chief Operating Officer (COO) Joseph Palaia. “We are hopeful that this Kickstarter project helps us to make significant progress towards our near-term fundraising goals, while also providing some incredible rewards for our supporters.”

With the Google Lunar X PRIZE, a total of $30 million in prize money is available to the first privately funded team to safely land a robot on the surface of the Moon, have that robot travel 500 meters over the surface, and send HD video, images and data back to Earth.

Of the 26 teams in the competition, ESI is one of only six teams which have been selected for a NASA Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data contract worth up to $10M. But the contract is awarded incrementally and a multi-axis CNC machine is needed to take their designs to the next level (and meet upcoming contract goals.) Donate to their Kickstarter project here.

At whatever level you contribute, know that you are helping students build real spacecraft, and you’re going to be getting some pretty amazing rewards as well! The students appreciate your support!

— Omega Envoy team, ESI

Find out more about ESI’s project on the Earthrise Space Inc. website, and check out the other Google Lunar X PRIZE competitors here.

Source: Google Lunar X PRIZE blog

Get Your Own Unprecedented 3-D View of the Moon

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Love 3-D images? Interested in maps? Want to explore the Moon? Then a new Kickstarter project may be just what you are looking for. Jeffrey Ambroziak, creator of a specialized 3-D map projection method, will be producing what he calls the first true 3-D map of the Moon, and he is offering space enthusiasts the chance to get either digital or paper copies of the map, created from recently released data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Interest in the project has skyrocketed, and while the goal of $5,000 has already been reached by more than double that amount, Ambroziak is now thinking of what more he can offer to backers of his PopView 3D Moon Map.

“We’re at a place now where you can do some interesting research on your own, and it doesn’t necessarily require a large institution,” Ambroziak said by phone. “I love the idea of using Kickstarter to give interested and passionate space aficionados the opportunity to work with us.”

The maps will include not only 3-D views of the Moon’s surface, but on the “front side” will be “National Geographic-style” graphics and information.

Ambroziak said the backers who fund his project will be instrumental choosing the mapping locations and the information that is included.

“This will be very a very collaborative effort to pick the things we will put on the front of the map and the areas that we actually map in 3-D,” he told Universe Today. “As the Kickstarter project description makes clear, we are going to leverage the knowledge of all involved to produce a map that is as informative as it is innovative while letting everyone experience our excitement as the project takes shape. And in the end, everyone gets a copy of the map!”

Ambroziak added, “In the current age with NASA’s budget cuts and the space agency looking towards private enterprise more, there is now a place for interested people to create very interesting and useful space products. We spend billions of dollars to gather incredibly beautiful data of the Moon and Mars and much of it just sits around. We are looking to do our part to bring this data to life, and I’m proof of that you don’t have to sit around and wait for NASA to make an image from LROC data. We don’t have to wait anymore, we can do it ourselves.”

Ambroziak has been overwhelmed that his project is so popular. “I love the idea of the feedback that I’m getting already from people who are so excited about this project,” he said. Most gratifying was a top level pledge of $1,200 from former astronaut and shuttle pilot William Readdy, pledged $1200 to the project who wished Ambroziak “godspeed” in the effort. “It’s pretty neat when astronauts see the importance of what is being attempted,” Ambroziak said.

His patented Ambroziak Infinite Perspective Projection (AIPP) is a map projection method used for three-dimensional stereo visualization of geographic data, which allows viewers to see precise representation of data in 3-D, no matter what angle or distance the image is being viewed. He detailed the method in his book, Infinite Perspectives: Two Thousand Years of Three-Dimensional Mapmaking, (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999) and has previously created 3-D maps of Antarctica and Mars, which have been displayed at museums such as the Peabody Museum of Natural History.

I asked Ambroziak how far along he was with the project.

“I have downloaded all of the LROC imagery and digital elevation information,” he said. “I have further processed the image data to stretch out the contrast, computed shadows from the digital elevation model, and mixed the computed shadows back into the imagery to improve appearances. AIPP is then applied as desired to create 3D images. Specifically, imagery and digital elevation data is combined in accordance with a few chosen AIPP parameters (vertical exaggeration, view plane elevation, etc.) to produce the AIPP map.”

But that is only the technical part of the project, as the “front side” of the maps will be more artistic.

“I will be able to poll the backers for their preferred area of interest,” he said. “In short, you back the project, you have a say in the mapping of the Moon! Ultimately, I would like to perform a systematic mapping of the entire surface of the Moon in accordance with the USGS quad-map nomenclature and format. This is just the first step. This is Kickstarter – not start and then end.”

Check out the Kickstarter page for the “prizes” or incentives are for the various levels of funding. They range from getting a digital copy emailed to you, to complete posters, to an invitation to dinner for you and a guest with the Ambroziak, with food and drinks on him.

Behind the Scenes of NASA’s Upcoming MMORPG

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These days, nearly every game company is trying to get their fingers in the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) pie. Given the past successes of games like Ultima Online and Everquest and the current success of games like EVE Online and World of Warcraft, it’s no surprise that companies want try to create the next “killer app” of the MMORPG market.

One such game company that will be launching a new game is the company partnered with NASA to develop a space-based MMORPG for the space agency.  Having raised nearly $40,000 in pledged funding via kickstarter, the company aims to start beta testing their offering some time next year.

So what does this new MMORPG do differently that will attract and retain paying customers? What makes Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond different from say, EVE Online, Star Trek Online, or Star Wars Galaxies?

When a game developer becomes associated with a “big-name” property,  expectations from both fans and developers can be quite high. Despite securing a license to create a game based on the Stargate franchise, a game development company never released the game and eventually ended up in bankruptcy. Star Trek Online, despite being one of the most anticipated MMORPG franchises went through two developers and when finally released had less than stellar sales.  Of course, many fans of MMORPG’s are all too familiar with the myriad issues that plagued Star Wars Galaxies.

Not all online games are destined for failure. Some games build up players steadily over time and retain an extremely loyal fan base. In some cases, “slow and steady wins the race” is a reality for some game companies. So, what does it take to build a successful online game franchise?

Concept Art of a Future Astronaut: Image Credit: Project Whitecard International 2011

In the case of the upcoming NASA MMORPG, Daniel Laughlin, project manager of NASA’s Learning Technologies cited research over the past decade indicating that games have tremendous potential to enhance learning. Laughlin stated, “The goal of the MMO project is to tap into the power of games to inspire and promote learning specifically in areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)”. Laughlin also added, “Based on the existing literature as well as my own experiences gaming, an MMO was the logical choice for a game project for NASA.”

What Laughlin believes to be of benefit to his idea is that a MMO gives the ability to continually update, adjust and expand a game – keeping players engaged over long periods of time.

Laughlin also mentioned the success of a NASA proof-of-concept game, Moonbase Alpha, as an encouraging sign of interest in a NASA-themed MMORPG, citing over 400,000 downloads. Laughlin also added “It is short proof of concept piece. Just a 20 minute mission, but it was built to prove to NASA that we could build a commercial quality game that uses NASA content – the lunar architecture – and is fun and inspirational.”

Moonbase Alpha Screenshot: Image Credit: NASA Learning Technologies

How does a promising proof-of-concept demo become a full-fledged online game?

Laughlin’s office solicited development partners to build the game under a non-reimbursable space act agreement (Meaning NASA is partnered with the game developer, but no funds change hands). The Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond team was selected through a competitive process and has signed an agreement with NASA. The development team has to raise development funds on their own and NASA will provide subject matter experts along with education and evaluation experts to assist the team. Currently, the development team has raised nearly $40,000 via their kickstarter page.

Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond. Image Credit: Project Whitecard International 2011

Khal Shariff, CEO of Project Whitecard is equally optimistic about Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond, stating, “We view this project as an almost sacred opportunity to engage new and current generations of science fans, those who are forever looking outward, with a vision for space exploration.”

When asked specifically about the fund raising efforts via Kickstarter, Shariff mentioned “It means all of the world to the people making this project happen, and it’s a hell of a deal, especially when you see that a $30 bid will send two licenses to a school and one to yourself.” Shariff also added, “More than this, it shows that Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond, has honest, people-driven roots and will succeed or fail on its own merits.”

Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond. Image Credit: Project Whitecard International 2011

Shariff’s goal is a very solid game mechanic that rewards players for competing in areas of STEM learning and mentioned that one essential gameplay mechanic is a combination of gear and crafting. One other game play mechanic of quests are standard fare in many online games. In the case of Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond, the quests are missions that fit into the larger storyline. Shariff was tight-lipped as to what, if any protagonists are present in the game, stating: “We have protagonists in the game, and I won’t say much about them, because I don’t want to spoil the opening scene of Chapter One.”

On the topic of chapters, Shariff mentioned plans for a future expansion to allow manned travel to destinations beyond Mars and the asteroid belt, even though in first chapter, players will have visited said destinations with unmanned missions.

Based on information presented by the development team, it does appear they will be putting forth considerable effort to fulfill Laughlin’s goal of a fun, educational and infinitely playable game. Shariff concluded with: “We want you to sit down and curl up with one session and have a feeling like you had when you read the best short science fiction stories, especially like those of Clarke. There is plenty of adventure to plumb.”

If you’d like to learn more about NASA’s Learning Technologies program, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/offices/education/programs/national/ltp/research/index.html

You can download the Moonbase Alpha game at: http://ipp.gsfc.nasa.gov/mmo, and you can learn more about Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond at: http://www.astronautmmo.com

Ray Sanders is a Sci-Fi geek, astronomer and space/science blogger. Visit his website Dear Astronomer and follow on Twitter (@DearAstronomer) or Google+ for more space musings.