Technology & Science

Space telescope crowdfunding campaign launched

A would-be asteroid mining company has launched a crowdfunding campaign to provide students as young as kindergarten age with access to a new space telescope.

Arkyd telescope to be accessible to students if $1M raised

The 15-kilogram, toaster-sized Arkyd telescope is expected to orbit the Earth about 500 to 700 kilometres above the surface. (Planetary Resources)

A would-be asteroid mining company has launched a crowdfunding campaign to provide students as young as kindergarten age with access to a space telescope.

Seattle-based Planetary Resources announced Wednesday that it wants to raise $1 million US by June 30 to fund the Arkyd telescope, billed as "the first publicly accessible space telescope."

"Students of all ages will have the ability to direct the telescope and explore what interest them," said the company's page on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. It added that opportunities are planned specifically targeting students in kindergarten to Grade 12.

People who pledge at least $25 can upload a photo and have it photographed on the telescope with the Earth as a background. (Planetary Resources)

The 15-kilogram, toaster-sized telescope, which is expected to orbit the Earth about 500 to 700 kilometres above the surface, will also be made available as a "low-cost resource" to researchers at universities and non-profit universities.

Because it will be above the Earth's atmosphere, it can operate 24 hours a day, unlike optical telescopes on Earth, which can only see properly at night when skies are clear. Arkyd will be able to see the same colours as the human eye, along with some ultraviolet and infrared light.

According to Planetary Resources, it has similar capabilities to Canada's suitcase-sized NEOSsat, launched in February to spot asteroids and track satellites and space debris.

The Arkyd telescope is expected to launch in 2015.

Planetary Resources is the brainchild of Eric Anderson, a former manager of a NASA mission to Mars, and Peter Diamandis, the entrepreneur and financier behind the X-Prize Foundation, which offers cash prizes for specific technological breakthroughs by private industry, including a number involving spaceflight.

The company, which is backed by high-profile investors including Hollywood director James Cameron and Google founder Larry Page, announced last year that it plans to mine asteroids in outer space and bring the resources back to Earth.

Technology developed for asteroid mining

Among the technologies it has been developing to achieve that goal is a fleet of Arkyd spacecraft "to identify asteroids that are ripe for further exploration." The spacecraft are named after the droid manufacturer Arakyd Industries in the Star Wars science-fiction series.

Arkyd said it has spent the last year "making great leaps" in its technology providing the company an opportunity to "engage in another passion of our team — to make space exploration accessible to everyone."

One of the Arkyd spacecraft's unique features is a camera mounted on an arm that allows the craft to take pictures of itself.

Those who pledge at least $25 toward the crowdfunded telescope will be able to upload a photo to the telescope and take a "selfie" picture of the photo on the telescope from space with the Earth as a background, the Kickstarter site promises.

Those who pledge $200 or more will be able to remotely control the telescope to take pictures of celestial objects.

Some levels of pledges will also provide access to the telescope to students and researchers.

The money raised will go toward launching the telescope into orbit, the cost of staff and other resources to support the telescope over its lifetime, to develop software to allow "anyone" to control the telescope and to create educational programs.

The project will only go ahead if the fundraising goal is reached by the June 30 deadline.

According to Planetary Resources, a comparable telescope would have cost $100 million less than a decade ago.

René Doyon, a University of Montreal astrophysicist who develops imaging techniques and sensors for telescopes, including NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble, said the project demonstrates how fascinated the public is with space exploration.

"It is interesting and fascinating to see amateur astronomy moving into space!" Doyon added in an email from the Canadian Astronomical Society meeting in Vancouver on Wednesday. "I'm convinced they can pull this off. I'm just a little skeptical they can fly their telescope for $1 million."

Planetary Resources' announcement was going to be streamed online, but the company was unable to get the Ustream feed working properly.