Remember Planetary Resources, the company that aims to mine asteroids and return the resulting riches to Earth? The obvious first step in this plan is to locate some enticing asteroids, and I wrote about their micro-telescope designs back in January. They eventually plan to launch a fleet of 20-centimeter telescopes to scour nearby space for their targets, but like any prospective space mission, lots of testing is in order. Unlike most other space missions, however, Planetary Resources hopes to involve the public.
They've just launched a fundraising campaign on the popular crowd-sourcing website Kickstarter, which you can view here. If they can raise one million dollars, Planetary Resources hopes to launch their first ARKYD telescope in 2015. Most Kickstarter campaigns result in supporters ("backers") receiving something, be it new episodes of a favorite podcast or a pair of fancy virtual reality goggles. In this case, backers have the rare chance to interact with a space telescope. Donate $25 to beam your face into space and have it photographed on the side of the telescope. Pretty cool, right? But the real highlight here kicks in for those who donate more than $200. If you're that generous, you'll have the until-now rare opportunity to direct a space telescope to an object of your choice and snap a few pictures.
This wouldn't be the first time amateurs got to use an orbiting observatory. Early in the Hubble mission, teams of advanced amateurs were permitted small amounts of time to observe scientifically-interesting targets as an outreach project. Unless you'd already spent decades in amateur astronomy by the earlier nineties, however, that chance probably passed you by. Now, anyone with a couple of Benjamins can have a go. Of course, the ARKYD is no Hubble, but let's not be picky here!
Although some may find the notion of "donating" to a private company a questionable affair, in this case Kickstarter is really just a fancy way of taking payments for services to be rendered in the future. It must not be a major hangup for most, because only hours after launching the campaign, Planetary Resources is nearly one-quarter of the way to their goal.
With space technology becoming smaller and more technologically-advanced (think PhoneSats), we may be looking towards exciting times for crowd-funding these opportunities. Over the decades, space exploration has moved from the grasp of superpowers to the adventure of smaller nations to the enterprise of corporations. Perhaps us average citizens will be next!