Both Planetary Resources and the International Lunar Observatory Association (ILOA) are launching two new, privately owned space telescopes. ILOA's moon-based telescope and Planetary Resources' orbital telescope are backed by private investment and crowdfunding—and will let schools and universities use their facilities on a per-fee basis. Planetary Resources will even let backers take selfies in space.
This afternoon, Planetary Resources—an asteroid-mining venture backed by James Cameron, Eric Schmidt, and Larry Page among others, announced at a Seattle press conference that they are raising $1 million to build their small Arkyd 100 space telescope via Kickstarter. While the stated goal of the Arkyd space telescope project is to scout and survey asteroids to mine, the Kickstarter plan reveals Planetary Resources' primary short-term goal: The consumer commodification of space. At the press conference, Planetary Resources CEO Peter Diamandis revealed a Kickstarter incentive structure that effectively turns outer space into a consumer revenue generator.
The primary product on sale is what Planetary Resources calls the "#spaceselfie." For $25, customers can upload a picture of themselves (or another image of their choice) to display on the Arkyd, take a photo of it with the Earth in the background, and have a high-resolution image from the telescope sent back to the user. As shown in the slideshow image above, the "spaceselfie" is also designed for sharing and gifting. $100 donations earn five minutes of observation time on Arkyd's main optic, and further donations gain additional observation time. In an interview, Diamandis said the space photograph idea was the result of a collaboration between his engineering team and Washington's Museum of Flight; both wanted to come up with a unique way to build on existing public fascination with space travel.
Donors who back the Arkyd at higher levels receive access to the telescope's optic system for scientific experiments and observations. Large-scale donations from schools, universities, research institutions, and others gain access to bulk packages of observation time on Arkyd—along with the chance to screen a video in space, "spaceselfie" style.
"The thing that shocked us with our announcement last year was the amount of public interest in asteroid mining. We didn't want to shirk or turn our backs on the public. We wanted a way for people to get involved, and crowdfunding was a good way to do it," Diamandis told Fast Company.
Promotional materials for the Arkyd 100 stress both the satellite's size (1/1000th that of the Hubble Space Telescope) and the telescope's selfie-generating abilities—the space telescope can create up to 150 self-shots per operating day alongside 15 astronomical observations. As Diamandis put it, the Arkyd 100 "is basically created to show off our product line of [upcoming] satellites. We'll be deploying dozens of these satellites a year; this is one that we're taking off the assembly line to show off."
The Arkyd 100's initial components are expected to launch into space in April of 2014. This launch will only contain key systems; iterative systems for the space telescope are expected to launch at a later time. Although the telescope will have the ability to focus on targets on Earth, educational institutions will be encouraged to use the telescope to view sights in outer space. In other words, people looking to check out North Dakota's amazing oil fields from orbit might be better served elsewhere.
Planetary Ventures isn't the only organization looking to turn spacebound telescopes into earthly capital. The independent, Hawaii-based ILOA announced the details of their shoebox-sized International Lunar Observatory Precursor (ILO-X) shortly before the American Memorial Day holiday weekend. Backed by private funds, the telescope was built by Naveen Jain's Moon Express and will launch into space on a 2015 flight.
Jain told Fast Company via email that two "global demonstrations" of the lunar telescope, and its technology and Internet access software were held "from the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, simulating the telescope on the Moon with science teams controlling it from all over the world. We've developed a very intuitive user interface to be used by the general public, and more advanced interfaces to be used by astronomers and professional researchers."
According to promotional materials, the ILO-X is designed to take for-profit space exploration from the domain of Earth orbit (where companies such as SpaceX and Nanoracks have established comfortable niches) to the Moon, a comparatively uncharted area for commercial exploitation. Moon Express is based around a long-term plan of exploiting mineral and water deposits on the Moon, but in the short term—much like Planetary Resources—their press releases and public statements veer toward actually going into space as goal in and of itself.
Although ILO-X is far less powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope, it will also be easily accessible to academia upon launch. ILOA will grant educational institutions access to the telescope for observations using an as-of-yet disclosed fee schedule.
Jain told Fast Company that "democratizing access to space science and observation is one of main purposes of the telescope. Our customer, the ILOA, will be determining the level and cost of access to the telescope when it's on the Moon, and has a goal of establishing a new model of international collaboration and citizen science. We expect the use of the instrument to be widely available and that cost will not be a barrier to its educational and inspirational purpose."
Unlike Planetary Resources, the ILOA has a governmental partner of sorts in their space telescope project. But it's not an American partner... it's China. This past year, the organization signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Under the terms of the agreement, ILOA scientists will conduct observations using a UV telescope aboard China's own lunar rover.
Jain and Diamandis both share close ties to Singularity University, the grandiosely named California tech accelerator with a knack for audaciously world-changing projects. Diamandis cofounded Singularity University in 2008 with Ray Kurzweil; Jain serves on the think tank's board of directors alongside Diamandis, Kurzweil, and Rob Nail. The ILO-X will be demo'ed at a June 1 joint Fox Studios & Singularity University event that also includes UAV and robot presentations (alongside appearances from the Singularity University team and pop star Will.i.am); it is not known at press time if the Arkyd will be shown as well.
For Singularity University's alumni, students and aspiring students, space travel holds a distinct charm. As one might expect, participating in Singularity University requires a substantial amount of money. In terms of raising revenue, space travel isn't as crazy an idea as it sounds in the medium and long term. America's government- and military-backed space program spurred massive technological innovation and substantial financial benefits for the engineers, inventors, and patent holders who developed them.
Lastly... it's important to take a look back at humanity's last great age of discovery. Following Spain's first journeys to the Americas in the late 15th century, private and public-private corporations played a leading role in the age of exploration. The Dutch East India Company, the Hudson's Bay Company, and plenty of others made their fortunes going where governments feared to tread. In an era when NASA is retooling away from grand space exploration projects, someone has to pick up the slack—in this case, the private sector.